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In this new edition of his classic work Religion and the Rise of Western Culture Christopher Dawson addresses two of the most pressing subjects of our day the origin of Europe and the religious roots of Western culture With the magisterial sweep of Toynbee to whom he is often compared Dawson tells here the tale of medieval Christendom From the brave travels of sixth century Irish monks to the grand synthesis of Thomas Auinas in the thirteenth century Dawson brilliantly shows how vast spiritual movements arose from tiny origins and changed the face of medieval Europe from one century to the next The legacy of those years of ferment remains with us in the great cathedrals Gregorian chant and the works of Giotto and Dante Even though for Dawson these centuries charged the soul of the West with a spiritual concern a concern that he insists can never be entirely undone except by the total negation or destruction of Western man himself


10 thoughts on “Religion and the Rise of Western Culture

  1. says:

    This is an extraordinarily penetrating and elegant examination of the nature of medieval culture If you have an interest in the history of the Middle Ages this is top notch If not this book is probably not for you If you are instinctively hostile to the notion that anything of redeeming value occurred in this epoch or that the medieval Church played a hugely important and constructive role in the development of Europe and western civilization you should probably go read something by Christopher Hitchens instead This is very academic not written for popular audiences The immensity of the author's knowledge of these times is staggering Some prior knowledge of the Middle Ages and Church history is reuired in order to appreciate his argument


  2. says:

    We are accustomed to divide life into two separate spheres the public and the private Argument rages over what is the proper content of each and one can never intrude or be relinuished to the other without debate Another way of stating the divide is to call it the secular and the sacred Each person may pursue and believe what they will in their private lives but such things have no business influencing the secularised world of politics education or the economyThe history of Christianity and Western Europe as Christopher Dawson here tells it traces the root of this idea Unlike in the kingdoms of the east where political power and religion were centralised in the West political and military might was vested in the hands of barbarian chieftains and kings while higher culture and learning was a delicate flame being shielded by the stones of a scattered band of monasteries Even as Gregory of Tours can call himself a Roman nobleman he is surrounded by savage kings who hold the reins of power and he can only lament his own poor Latin which will not bear comparison to the great poets and orators of the crumbling Empire The culture of the barbarians be they northmen Gauls or Anglo Saxons was Heroic It venerated the Strong Man the Homeric hero who fought bravely against the odds and died valiantly The cringing strictures of loving one's enemy or that the last shall come first were alien to such a people And even as over time Christianity began to spread and become formally adopted by such heroic rulers a tension was preserved a divide subsisted There was Christian belief on one hand and politicalmilitary might on the other There was a private and a public sector But this changes in the 11th and 12th centuries The rise of city communes and trade guilds created societies far integrated than those which had been possible under the feudal system Despite that hierarchies remained they were joined by a spiritual purpose which found physical embodiment in the Gothic Cathedral each person had his part to contribute Dawson makes what seems almost a Weberian point though he is speaking of Catholics and not Protestants 'for every individual member of the whole is an end in himself and his particular officium or ministerium is not merely a compulsory social task but a way of the service of God through which he shares in the common life of the whole body' Life in these cities was so arranged that one's public role was an expression of one's private self Christianity had found a political expression 'For it was in the life of the Church and in the extension of the liturgy into common life by art and pageantry that the community life of the medieval city found its fullest expression so that the material poverty of the individual man was compensated by a wider development of communal activity and artistic and symbolic expression than anything that the materially wealthy societies of modern Europe have known' Its architecture is Gothic and one recalls John Ruskin's denunciation of the Renaissance succession as alienating the common man One has only today to stroll among the barren megaliths of London city erected by environment destroying multinationals to feel that he is entirely right in this point Its highest literary acheivement is the Divinia Commedia in which everything which was known about the natural word was perfectly synthesised with Christian beliefThe conditions on which such cities could exist were precarious and in England for example never came about because there the central monarchy was too strong and effective for such autonomous political entities to exist The unity fragmented over succeeding centuries though I am unsure that Dawson's explanation as to why this should be so is entirely straight forward Partly it is the result of the constant impetus to reform which characterises Latin Christendom represented by the universities and the new religious orders Partly too it was lack of strong political leadership But as Dawson points out it was probably less uick and less clear a process in the minds of most of whom we have but scant record He concludes with excerpts from Piers Plowman written in the 14th century by a man who was though no doubt learned did not belong to the court nor the schools It is written in the old alliterative style of the heroic Anglo Saxon age and in it 'there is no room for any social dualism or political conflict between Church and state' Right as the Rose that is red and sweetOut of a ragged root and rough briarsSpringeth and spreadeth and spicers desire itSo Do Best out of Do well and Do better doth SpringTrue wedded folk in this world are Do wellFor they must work and win and the world sustainFor of this kind they come that confessors be calledKings and Knights Kaysers and churlsMaidens and Martyrs out of one man come'


  3. says:

    A scholarly analysis of the contribution of the Catholic Church to Western CultureRenowned scholar historian and Catholic convert Christopher Dawson delivered the 1948 49 Gifford lectures and those lecture notes would eventually become Religion and the Rise of Western Culture Despite being published in 1950 the book still is relevant and perhaps authoritative today The book lacks the indignation of the diatribes being hurled across the political divide between Catholic and atheist social commentators and is instead a scholarly sober and balanced analysis of the role of the Church in developing those aspects of western culture many seem to take for grantedFirstly I need to get the bad out of the way why isn't there a new edition without a foreward from the disgraced Archbishop Weakland available? I believe much can be gleaned from the list of chapters as these perennial subjects provide the foundation of any understanding of the Middle AgesI Introduction The Significance of the Western DevelopmentII The Religious Origins of Western Culture The Church and the BarbariansIII The Monks of the West and the Formation of the Western TraditionIV The Barbarians and the Christian KingdomV The Second Dark Age and the Conversion of the NorthVI The Byzantine Tradition ant the Conversion of Eastern EuropeVII The Reform of the Church in the Eleventh Century and the Medieval PapacyVIII The Feudal World Chivalry and the Courtly CultureIX The Medieval City Commune and GuildX The Medieval City School and UniversityXI The Religious Crisis of Medieval Culture The Thirteenth CenturyXII Conclusion Medieval Religion and Popular CultureAppendix Notes on Famous Medieval ArtThere are many gems in the book as Dawson's writing is fluid and enjoyable his conclusions informed and well defended his examples lucid and pertinent The conversion of Western Europe was not achieved so much by the teaching of a new doctrine as by the manifestation of a new power which invaded and subdued the barbarians of the West as it had already subdued the civilized lands of the Mediterranean p 35But while in the Mediterranean the monks were retreating from the dying culture of the ancient world in the North monasticism was becoming the creator of a new Christian culture and a school of the Christian life for the new peoples of the west p 49how necessary it was to distinguish between the essentials of the Christian way of life and the accidents of Byzantine or Latin culture which the missionaries were apt to regard as a necessary part of Christianity and from the footnoteFor example it seems from this document that the uestion of wearing trousers preoccupied the minds of Byzantine missionaries in the ninth century no less than of English and American missionaries in the ninteenth But wereas these modern missionaries encouraged the wearing of trousers as a part of Christian civilization the Byzantines banned them as a pagan and barbarous custom p 107 108


  4. says:

    This work is so dry it makes the Sahara lush by comparison I hope each chapter endured lessens my poor soul’s time in Purgatory This is a survey of events within from around 500 through roughly 1300 AD that influenced the formation of Western European culture The focus is on the Church’s influence Contrary to the predominant opinion of the secularists Christianity had a dominating influence on these times and Dawson establishes this The cost to the reader however is grueling Without uestion Dawson knows his material but this is written with colleagues – not laymen – in mind He alludes to a person to make a point or set an example yet misses the mark because the person is obscure to any layman This is the problem with the work It reuires expertise a priori A disappointment


  5. says:

    Superb and encyclopaedic yet eminently readable Includes much detail not often found in standard Protestant church histories


  6. says:

    This was an insightful book on the dynamics involved in the formation of Western culture in the Middle Ages Far from being a stagnant period this book does a good job explaining the various eras of medieval history and the diverse cultural forces at work especially focusing on the impact of Christianity It was a helpful account how Christianity discipled the nations in Europe from the fall of Rome to the 13th century Some uotes from the bookNevertheless throughout the whole history of Western Europe down to the last century the absence of unitary organization and of a single uniform source of culture did not destroy the spiritual continuity of the Western tradition Behind the ever changing pattern of Western culture there was a living faith which gave Europe a certain sense of spiritual community in spite of all the conflicts and divisions and social schisms that marked its history 16Moreover the liturgy was not only the bond of Christian unity It was also the means by which the mind of the gentiles and the barbarians was attuned to a new view of life and a new concept of historyAs we have seen the archaic pagan ritual order was conceived as the pattern of the cosmic order and conseuently its typical mysteries were the mysteries of nature itself represented and manifested in the dramatic action of sacred mythThe Christian mystery on the other handwas not concerned with the life of nature with culture as a part of the order of nature but with the redemption and regeneration of humanity by the Incarnation of the Divine WordBut since the Incarnation and the whole redemptive process were historically situation the Christian mystery was also an historical mystery–the revelation of the divine purpose manifested on earth and in time as the fulfillment of the ages Thus instead of the nature myth which was the key to the ritual order of the archaic civilization the Christian mystery is based on a sacred history and liturgy develops into an historical cycle in which the whole story of human creation and redemption is progressively unfolded 40 41For the divine right of the anointed king was counterbalanced throughout the greater part of the Middle Ares by its conditional and revocable character; and this was not a mere concession to theological theory; it was enforced by the very real authority of the Church Here again the influence of the Old Testament tradition of theocracy was paramount so that the medieval monarchy and most of all the medieval empire possessed a theocratic character in a different sense from that which is to be seen in the Byzantine Empire or in the absolute monarchies of Europe after the Renaissance and the Reformation Nevertheless even in these later periods it is not difficult to find examples of the older view of the limited and essentially dependent nature of divine right Throughout these periods both in Catholic and protestant Europe there was a large body of opinion which acknowledged the Divine right of kings without admitting that this involved the principle of Passive Obedience so that there is an historic connection between the modern idea of constitutional monarchy and the medieval tradition of kingship 93St Benedict critiuing the Papacy of his time For if you are to do the work of a prophet you need the hoe rather than the sceptre247If there is any truth in what I have been sayingsuch moments of vital fusion between a living religion and a living culture are the creative events in history in comparison with which all the external achievements in the political and economic orders are transitory and insignificant 274


  7. says:

    Dawson understood the roots of our culture


  8. says:

    The latter half of Dawson’s 1947 49 Gifford lectures collected in this volume explore the influence of Christianity in the medieval synthesis of western culture and the birth of the elusive but demonstrable something that once upon a time went by the name of Christendom Dawson was a Catholic as well as an historian but this isn’t mere apologetics It’s solid stuff well drawn and insightful that moves from the barbarian invasions to the era of St Francis Western culture gets some bad press these days much of it undeserved This book might help set the record straight on a few things


  9. says:

    The Creation of Christian culture in the heart of Western ManA sweeping summary of the rise of the church Dawson has a detailed knowledge of hundreds of key players He links the conversion of the Kentish and Gaulish kings This was not the interplay of church and state but rather the beginning of creation of biblical culture by the missionaries Or consider the end of the 'geographic' dark ages Francis travels to the Caliphate Yes St Francis Franciscans establish mission in Bejing attempt international treaty with ' the khan' in central Asia all this in the 13th century A great intro from a scholarly and sympathetic perspective


  10. says:

    That this book is a 3 and not a 4 star says waaaay about my ignorance than any shortcoming in Dawson's writing This book caused me to feel the canyon sized gaps in my knowledge of the Middle Ages I simply didn't know enough for the book to make of an impact on mepearls before swine Still I did glean a good deal from the book and on the whole enjoyed it I can see myself attempting this book again in ten years when maybe I'm not such a dumbass