Disunion: true hallmark of the history of Europe ?

Tags: Europe can only be understood by re-examining its medieval roots. JEAN-PHILIPPE GENET tracks the origins of the European Project.

The European Union has a very short history behind it, and what the word “Union” means is largely a matter of opinion. The conflicting positions of the European governments and public opinions cover a wide spectrum, to say the least.

After the Second World War, the first European project, associated with figures such as Konrad Adenauer, Jean Monnet and Robert Schumann, was conceived as a voluntary reaction against the structural division of Europe, an artificial union against a natural disunion. The alternative vision, that of an enlarged Europe, does not bother about the past, it simply advocates a union of economic interests: still an artificial union, it makes no assumption about the past, be it union or disunion.

However, the simple fact that, for the first time on this scale, the consent of the citizens is necessary for the implementation of a European Constitution, implies the existence of a political community, a political society of some sort, which will share a common fate as a consequence of this vote. Bearing this in mind, the question of union or disunion strikes a different chord: if we consider a political community, and go beyond the mechanics of treaty-making between states, the problem of what the members of such a community have in common and of what divides them – and to what extent – becomes central.

The long and mostly inconclusive discussions about the preamble of the European Constitution (including, for instance, the controversy about the relationship between Europe and the Christian religion or the opportunity to quote a Greek philosopher) may be only a foretaste of other impassioned debates to come.

What I intend to do is simply to look for indisputable elements in European history which could help us to highlight common features and to trace divisions which lie behind the present structures, and may have more or less weight in their evolution: it will come as no surprise that I shall concentrate mostly upon the medieval period.

The main reason for this here is that the history of Europe starts during the medieval period: not on a given day, or year, not even during a precise century, but through a rather long period of a half-millennium, during which something roughly corresponding to what we now call Europe emerged.

No such development can be traced either in prehistoric, protohistoric or ancient times: for instance, Greek cities were as numerous on Asian soil as they were in modern-day Europe. Similarly, the Roman Empire was not especially European, being centred on the Mediterranean and nearly equally divided between three continents, Africa, Asia and Europe. In many ways, the Islamic caliphate is as much a successor to the Roman Empire as the Frankish or Byzantine Empires. The Christian religion itself originates in Palestine, as does its direct ancestor, Judaism, not far from the place of birth of its younger rival, Islam, in the two Asian cities of Mecca and Medina. The so-called fall of the Roman Empire did not change much at first: however, it was no fall, since the Empire continued in the East, and remained alive, at least as a fiction, in the West.

In fact, the real change started in the seventh century, when the Arabic conquest cut off the Christian kings from the Mediterranean. At the end of the same century, the first serious attempts to a systematic conversion of the pagan Germans started. True, the Germanic people which had settled inside the traditional limits of the Empire had soon become Christians. They were also, with the remarkable exception of the Franks, mostly Arians: but it was something quite different to enter the wilderness of non-urbanized Northern Europe and confront the paganism of peoples which had an organized clergy and tribal sanctuaries. Irish and Anglo-Saxon missionaries, soon staunchly backed by both the Carolingian dynasty and Church, started a movement which culminated with the conversion of the Saxons, which took more than 30 years.

This was the turning point in the West: all other incoming people were thereafter converted in due time, and when the Frankish missionaries met their Byzantine counterparts on the Eastern border, a fierce competition erupted between them, making sure that nearly all European peoples, even the Russians, were converted by the twelfth century (though most of Spain and Sicily was Muslim, and Lithuania only Christianised in the fourteenth century).

To sum up what had happened, one could say that the Christianizing of the pagan people united in one community the remnants of the Roman populations, all those people who had settled inside the Empire and become “civilised” from the fourth century onwards, and the pagan peoples. This community was united by religion, and though it was often torn by heresies and rivalries, especially between the Greek and the Latin Churches, it had a certain amount of cohesion, because its members were free to enforce its rules and to shape their societies according to influential minorities.

But two points ought to be made clear: there was no political unity in this Christian Europe; and neither the Church nor the two rival Empires (Romano-Germanic and Byzantine) had any idea that “Europe” could have any value in itself: they were aiming at a universal domination and had no intention to limit their ascendancy to Europe. In that sense, one could say that Christianising – and certainly not the Christian religion in itself – created Europe, this mixture of decadent Rome and proto-historical civilization.

However, the European lands were on the verge of a complete transformation. Historians are far from unanimous on what happened and why, though few would question the magnitude of the change. From our point of view, its main consequence is that it created a fundamental divide in Europe, which led to disunion, mutual ignorance and, in the end, hostility between the Western and Eastern parts of Europe. The starting-point is the political discrepancy between the Carolingian Empire and the Byzantine one (which, however, is not to say that its cause was political) and its consequences on the respective positions of the Greek and Latin Churches. The Carolingian Empire collapsed precisely when the Byzantine reached a new summit, under the Macedonians Emperors. This led to a complete reorganization of power and authority in the West, a phenomenon which is usually called feudalism, though this word is now viewed with much suspicion by a growing number of historians. The main fact may be a phenomenon which has different facets. Noble families, with the help of bands of mounted warriors – who became known as knights and became themselves noble in due time – rooted their power in territorial lordships, controlled by castles, and reorganized territories, structuring with nucleated villages. The most prestigious of them were the princely families established in groups of counties entrusted to them by the Carolingians: but they had to struggle against competing noble families to uphold their position. Kings, first members of the Carolingian family continually struggling among themselves to reach the imperial crown, then members of successful princely families, preserved a degree of superiority by being sacred: despite this, the idea that the government of a human society could be achieved only by the collaboration between an imperial and a clerical/pontifical power, slowly lost ground. This remained true in the East, but in the West, the disintegration of public power created a new situation.

For long, it has been held that the feudal period was a period of anarchy and that nobles, princes and their followers made havoc on the goods of the church. It was certainly a violent time, when a new nobility asserted its dominium on free peasants. But historical anthropology has brought with it a new understanding of a society in which conflicts were often terminated by arbitration: no state justice, true, but a regulation system in which the consensus of the members of the dominant class, behaving as a collective ruler, maintained a certain amount of order.

However, it implied certain changes in the position of the Church, though less important that may have been thought: for instance, western monasteries in the Carolingian period were often closely linked with aristocratic families, with abbots always recruited from the founders’ kin: these founding families, which had originally endowed monasteries, still considered their lands as their own. Feudal lords simply tightened their control on church land and mustered its resources for their own struggles, extending their authority on bishoprics by buying them for members of their family and trying to pass them to sons or nephews. Since most influential clerics were members of ruling feudal families, those opposing this evolution were only a minority.

However, had such an evolution, depicted in horrified terms by the Gregorian reformers prevailed, it would have precluded any hopes of an imperial revival in the West: even more than in the East, where civil judges and magistrates had survived, Western Emperors needed the close collaboration of a Church free from aristocratic control to govern efficiently. That is why the successors of Otto I, King of Germany and Italy who had revived the western Empire in 962 after defeating the Hungarians, deliberately chose to uphold the Reformers: monks who had found shelter in monasteries benefiting from exemption, depending directly on the Pope and therefore avoiding the interference and control of local bishops (i.e. local feudal families). Cluny in France was the first and greatest of these monasteries, but they were soon numerous, especially in Lorraine and the Palatinate, where they were protected by the Imperial family. I am not going to detail the following evolution. Imperial hopes were thwarted: the Church went a step further than expected. When Reformers became Popes with the help of the Emperors, they soon enforced the Pope’s election by the college of the Cardinals: the Church asserted its own authority, free from any interference, and claimed the Pope as the only representative of Christ on earth, as the holder of supreme authority.

At that stage, I would like to make a pause. You will have noticed that I never mentioned “causality”. However, the Reformers’ victory is not the victory of a good, just or wise policy against a bad one. It is a social choice, made possible because of the particular conditions existing in the West: the collapse of the Carolingian empire, a social revolution (which you may term feudal or not) and an economic upheaval: the end of a long period of decline and the start of the longest period of economic growth experienced by Western Europe in its whole history. This is what makes the processes we are studying part of a deep structural change, creating an entirely new world, in which the West of Europe entered on a path totally different from that of the East.

The Church’s power was never, even at its apex, a military or even (strictly speaking) a political power. The Church was happy to let lay rulers rule, provided they directed their energy, their money and their men to fulfilling its wishes and to enforcing its laws. When I speak of the Church, I really mean the Pope. For the fist time, Christian religion had organized as a unitary structure, the Papal monarchy. Its power was absolute, but it chose to exercise it first and foremost on souls. Nineteenth- and most twentieth-century historians did not fully grasp this, embroiled as they were in the struggle of laicisation against clericalism, siding in general with one of these two positions. There was no religion as such: all men were Christian; that is, they were the fideles of Christ in everything spiritual as they were the fideles of their lord in temporal ones, and as such, they were under the spiritual dominium of the Church and of the Pope. Christians were those who were neither infidels, pagans (for instance Jews and Muslims) nor heretics (a word practically forgotten in the Western World, where it had last been heard in the sixth century before being brutally revived in different parts of Europe between 1022 and 1028).

However, to enforce his domination, the Papacy had to solve two main problems. The first one was its competition for universal power with the Empire. Suffice it to say that, after a long and protracted struggle, the Empire lost; after the death of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen in 1250, and the establishment of Saint Louis’s brother, Charles of Anjou, on the throne of Sicily, Emperors, though at times dangerous, were never again in a position to press their claims to universal power. When Boniface VIII celebrated his triumphal jubilee in 1300 in Rome, the victory of the Papacy was apparently complete. In fact, the other problem of the Papacy was still more difficult to solve: how to enforce its spiritual power and to make it efficient – how to govern and control the minds of millions of people, from kings to serfs and slaves, men and women, old and young?

The Reformers’ action took two main routes. The first one was that of social control. The Reformers strategy was to exclude themselves from the exchange of women, to be in a position from which they could control it. The married priest was to disappear: the western priest had to be celibate, obeying vows of chastity as strict as those of the monks, those honorary angels, as Peter Brown put it. Carnalitas became the main enemy of spiritualitas and the epic struggle between the two became one of the main themes of religious propaganda. The rules of marriage were completely transformed: whereas the Carolingian aristocracy had been structured in large kin groups, whose cohesion was in part maintained by the circulation of women and especially by marriage between cousins, it became a mortal sin to marry a woman within the 6th degree of parentage. In a world where travel was difficult, this excluded practically all women in the neighbourhood. Besides, and even worse, monogamy was strictly enforced. While Carolingian aristocrats indulged in having several wives, both by divorcing them when they found it expedient and by supplementing their first wife with official mistresses, and therefore usually managed to get sons from at least one of them, feudal lords who had the misfortune to marry a barren wife were deprived of legitimate issue. Marriage within a prohibited degree, bigamy and divorce were severely condemned by ecclesiastical courts, often opening the path to excommunication. Kings and great lords were often selected as exemplary targets of the Church’s justice. In the meantime, marriage was transformed into a sacrament – which it had not been – and conjugal love was promoted as the best way to avoid beastly carnalitas as a sin, if it was impossible for laymen to avoid having sex altogether.

The second road was that of education: a complete educational change was a necessary precondition for the teaching of the Church’s new interpretation of Christian religion, insisting upon the need for each individual to achieve his redemption and to repay the infinite debt due to Christ who suffered for redeeming humanity. To convince the laity, to capture people’s mind at a point where Christian principles would become the essential components of their individual moral views, it was necessary to teach, to preach and to reach each man’s conscience, whatever his status in society.

This implied two things: first, to have a well educated clergy in sufficient numbers to do this, and second, to have a conveniently and clearly structured explanation of the Christian religion to offer to the Christian people in all its diversity. On these two counts, schools were essential. The move started in reformed monasteries, but they were unable (and probably also unwilling) to provide the expected numbers of educated men the Church needed. Cathedral schools, from the eleventh century onwards, took over but they soon appeared unequal to the task. The twelfth century saw the development of the great schools of Paris and Bologna, and this led to the creation and later on to the multiplication of universities. In the thirteenth century, the mendicant convents and new types of urban schools offered further opportunities for education.

But the schools were also able to introduce radical changes in the content of education. Christian theology now centred upon the Christ and his sacrifice: Eucharist, implying a reorganization of the ritual of the mass, became the centre of this new presentation of Christian religion. Each man, as an individual, was indebted to Christ for the chance of salvation he had offered him by His sacrifice; each man had to repay his debt. The invention of Purgatory was one of the great ideas of the Parisian masters: each man was to be judged according to his merits, and though a layman given to carnalitas had few hopes of achieving salvation at first, he could, with the mediation of the Virgin, the saints and the Church, entertain reasonable hopes to reach a place in Purgatory and from there in Paradise, avoiding the unending torments of hell. But these transformations of theology were not the product of intuition, dream and creative imagination: they were achieved by an assiduous and careful search for truth, through a philosophical method based upon the elaboration and validation of true propositions, in order to interpret and complement Scripture.

Two things are to be kept in mind at this stage. First, the change in the education system created new opportunities and new incentives for education. We have moved far away from a society in which the basic skills of reading and writing were the monopoly of the clerical order, to enter into a society of restricted literacy, to use an anthropologist’s concept, that is a society in which the written text is so omnipresent that even illiterates use it, hiring professionals to read or write for them. Medieval theologians considered themselves as the only authorized exponents and interpreters of the Truth. To achieve this, they went back to the logic of the ancients, to the writings of Aristotle, often recovered through Hebraic or Arabic versions, enriched by the commentaries of Jewish (Maïmonide) or Arabic (Avicenna, Averroès) philosophers. The development of Christian theology in the West was built upon the philosophy and the science of the Antiquity, which thus became “European” for the first time, together with many Jewish and Arabic authors.

However, the thirteenth century saw an enormous increase in the writing and diffusion of texts in the vernacular: Icelandic and Occitan were first, though for very different reasons, but then French took over, and became the first “European” written vernacular language in the thirteenth century, the only resistance coming from the Castile of Alphonse X. But, in the fourteenth century, all major European languages were written in a more or less standardized form, giving the laity access to a wide range of texts.

Second, the delegation of power to the lay rulers had always been an assumption on the part of the Papacy, but now gradually became an actual institutional arrangement. Though several of the main kingdoms (England, for instance) had for some time been vassals of Saint Peter, Christian Kings had never accepted to be limited in their decisions by the Church. In return for their help or neutrality in the conflict between Empire and Papacy, they got the possibility to enlist bishops and canons in their councils and, in due time, in their administrations. By accepting that the Papacy could exploit the resources of the Church in their kingdoms, they got a share, sometimes a lion’s share, of these resources.

The progress of Canon law, based upon the adaptation by university masters of the Roman law to the needs of the Church, made expertise in Roman law available to Kings and cities, and these were not slow in using it for their own purposes. The struggle between papacy and Empire had paved the way for the development of other lay powers: feudal monarchies in the West, cities in Italy, and, to a lesser extent, in Flanders.

This evolution had an obvious advantage: none of these autonomous political structures were making a claim for universal power; none of them could rival the Pope, as the Empire had once done. But it had its counterpart: as Innocent III observed to Philip Augustus, rex est imperator in regno suo. And in the end, they turned against papal demands: Boniface VIII was utterly defeated, both in fact and in principles, by the Kings of France and England, and the Pope was even forced to flee Rome and to find a shelter in Avignon until 1377, a situation which eventually led to the Great Schism and to the Conciliar Crisis.

These two elements – the educational revolution and its cultural consequences on the one hand, and the autonomy of lay powers and their legitimization on the other – are the two necessary conditions for the appearance of the modern state. They do not “produce” it: but without them, it simply cannot develop. The main reason for this is that without them, it is impossible to create a political society: an articulate political community in which debate and discussion, by oral or written communication, is possible.

However, it must be kept in mind that we are dealing with structures whose maturation takes an enormous amount of time: the transformation of the emerging English political society of 1215 into an articulate national political society took more than another century, and though the king of France, Philippe the Fair, was the first to ask his men to fight and to die pro patria.

If we now go back to our theme, union or disunion, we realize that what characterizes Western Europe is disunion: it is a political structure of competitive disunion which unites this part of Europe and makes it so different from the rest of the world – including the rest of Europe. Forgetting this may be quite dangerous for the understanding of contemporary conditions, because it leads to dangerous illusions.

Professor Genet is professor of Medieval History, Paris I Pantheon-Sorbonne. This essay is based on a lecture at Leiden given to inaugurate the 2005-6 academic year of the Europaeum’s MA in European History and Civilisation. The full text is on the association’s website.