Hence the new civilization which slowly and painfully began to emerge
in the early middle ages was in a very special sense a religious creation,
for it was based on an ecclesiastical not a political unity. While in
the East, the imperial unity was still all inclusive and the Church was
essentially the Church of the Empire, in the West it was the Church that
was the universal society and the state that was weak, barbarous and divided.
The only true citizenship that remained to the common man was his membership
of the Church, and it involved a far deeper and wider loyalty than his
allegiance to the secular state. It was the fundamental social relation
which overrode all distinctions of class and nationality.
The Church was a world in itself, with its own culture, its own organization
and its own law. In so far as civilization survived, it was directly dependent
on the Church, whether in the great Carolingian monasteries, such as St.
Gall or Fulda, which were the chief centres of cultural and economic life,
or in the cities which came to depend on the bishops and the ecclesiastical
element for their very existence. The state, on the other hand, had become
divorced from the city and the civic culture and reverted more and more
to the warlike traditions of a barbarous tribal aristocracy. For mediaeval
Europe no longer possessed a homogeneous material culture, such as we
find, for example, in China or India. It was a loose federation of the
most diverse types of race and culture under the hegemony of a common
religious and ecclesiastical tradition.
This explains the contradictions and disunity of mediaeval culture
the contrast of its cruelty and its charity, its beauty and squalor, its
spiritual vitality and its material barbarism. For the element of higher
culture did not spring naturally from the traditions of the social organism
itself, but came in from outside as a spiritual power which had to remould
and transform the social material in which it attempted to embody itself.
And so in the 11th and 12th centuries, when the social revival of Western
Europe began, the new development was inspired by religious motives, and
proceeded directly from the tradition of the spiritual society. The struggle
of the Investitures and the international supremacy of the reformed Papacy
were the visible signs of the victory of the spiritual power over the
feudal and barbaric elements in European society. Everywhere men became
conscious of their common citizenship in the great spiritual commonwealth
And this spiritual citizenship was the foundation of a new society. As
members of the feudal state, men were separated by the countless divisions
of allegiance and jurisdiction. They were parcelled out like sheep with
the land, on which they lived, among different lordships. But as members
of the Church, they met on a common ground. Before Christ,
writes St. Ivo of Chartres, there is neither free man nor serf,
all who participate in the same sacraments are equal.
Christopher Dawson (b. 1889)
from Progress and Religion (1938)
quoted in Return to Tradition: A Directive
Anthology pp. 316f
ed. Francis Beauchesne Thornton