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Introduction

The means by which Europe was transformed from an inchoate mass of feudal monarchies into modern nation-states is, understandably, ambiguous. One significant trend, though, is the movement away from feudalism (embodied by both monarchy and papacy) and towards nationalism (in various forms), with entrenched concepts of law and civil rights. Another is the natural tendency for polemic ideologies to have provoked strong reactions from their opposites, thereby creating a competitive environment in which each was consistently required to confront challengers. Most significantly of all, though, is the constant factor of Europe’s perpetual political disunity which leads to the primary assertions contained herein: firstly, that the condition of modern Europe’s surviving ideologies are the product of intense conflict and, secondly, that this actually means very little. While cosmetically the change has been dramatic, the overall trends remain constant. The downfall of archaic feudalism and the rise of modern nationalism, while noteworthy, do not alter the fact that Europe has, fundamentally, changed little prior to the Modern Era.

Before these assertions can be justified, though, some parameters must be set for the course of this analysis and some fallacies dispelled. It is common to suggest that Europe’s origins lie in the Classical world,1 although these were distinctly Mediterranean cultures (as they had no meaningful interaction with northern Europe but a great deal with Africa and the east). When one speaks of Europe, all lands between the Atlantic Ocean in the west, the Ural Mountains in the east, the Baltic Sea in the north and the Mediterranean Sea in the south are generally implied. Robust cultural links diminish geography, but an intelligible analysis must offer minimal ambiguity. Hence, this is the Europe to be spoken of. Additionally, no distinct event indicates the beginning of European culture and thus the following will be presented as the continuation of a lengthy narrative. For purposes of comparison, ‘modern’ Europe is defined as commencing from the Renaissance (c. 1500) to 1914, i.e. from the beginning to the very end of the feudal downfall, while ‘early’ Europe engenders all time before that (with particular emphasis on characteristically medieval institutions). All dates are CE/AD.

Blind Faith in Dark Times

With all that has been said about the Classical world and the tenuousness of its ties to modern Europe, it actually catalysed the spread of the concept of Christendom. The Roman Edict of Toleration (311) and Edict of Milan (313) reversed the anti-Christian trend hitherto exhibited and actually offered what had previously been thought of as a cult for subservient classes2 an increasing degree of power within the machinery of the state (including, eventually, acknowledgement as the state religion). The collapse of the Roman Empire during the south-westward tribal migrations of the next few centuries did not spell the demise of the Christian faith. It was probably the most secure institution of all, as it was seen as being wholly spiritual (and therefore a beacon) amidst turmoil and uncertainty3 - the initial contribution of the church and the kings who advocated it was inspiration, stability and solace where no structure existed and anarchy largely had free reign.

Deficient in many ways by comparison to Islamic cities or those of Byzantium, western Christendom bound together the first quarrelsome European proto-nations (so defined for their instability and ambiguous sovereignty) during the centuries following the collapse of Rome’s empire. These emerging factions managed to co-exist under the auspices of the papacy, itself a durable institution which traced its roots as far back as Saint Peter (33-67). This was reinforced by the coronation of Charlemagne (c. 742-814, coronated in 800) by Pope Leo III and the creation of the Holy Roman Empire in the heartland of Europe, as it demonstrated the papacy’s ability to create or remove rulers (thereby implying their subordination).4 Moreover, the Holy Roman Empire was virile and seemed as though it would offer perpetual secular support of the Catholic Church’s doctrines. Although the latter was a controversial matter (with pope and emperor frequently embattled), the pope enjoyed the foremost position in Europe until the end of the Medieval Period, sitting atop a rigidly stratified and immobile society.

Illuminating the Dark Ages

The Reformation (c. 1517-1578) was a dramatic shock, even to a continent which had been in a state of perpetual conflict and had witnessed many other heresies.5 A revolution in religious thought had been vehemently proposed - most notably by individuals such as Martin Luther (1483-1547, famous for his 95 Theses), Ulrich Zwingli (1485-1506), Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560), John Knox (1505-1572) and John Calvin (1509-1564) - to an authority which was anything but receptive. Searching for consistency of motive is an act of futility, but there is broad consensus that it was an attempt to undermine the papacy’s authority,6 albeit not yet the ‘Divine Right of Kings’ which it espoused. Instead, it proposed the concept of personal relationships with God. Such a bold declaration inevitably attracted the ire of the papacy, but the emphasis on individuality would only grow (and in proportion to contempt for the church). The concept of Christendom had ceased to fulfil a progressive role in society and so its tortuous decline began.

Heretical to Europe at the time, this blow was the culmination of many papal errors which in retrospect become clear. The schism between Orthodox and Catholic churches in 1054, the Avignon Papacy scandal (1309-1377), the overall failure of successive popes to create effective crusading movements (c. 1095-1500s), the related fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks (1453), the system of ‘indulgences’ and general European political woes all conspired to denigrate an institution which was now seen to embody materialism and institutionalised corruption.7 Despite initial persecution of Protestantism and the retention of an authoritative façade, the papacy would never again be as potent as it had been. The basis of its power - unconditional acceptance of its tenets - had been undermined and although spiritual pluralism was not yet deemed acceptable, the Thirty Years' War and the Treaty of Westphalia circuitously removed religion as a significant motive for diplomatic relations and placed a corresponding degree of emphasis on statecraft.8 The Reformation was a severe blow to feudal tradition.

As a by-product of increasing individual spiritual freedom, the caste system was less harshly enforced, while overseas expeditions (both of exploration and colonisation) abounded and mercantilism flourished where dealings in money had previously been frowned upon as contrary to religious doctrine.9 Renaissance culture was profoundly influenced by the origination and inheritance of new ideas (partially from the migration to Italy of Classical scholars and texts, pursuant to the sack of Constantinople). As the world edged closer towards Enlightenment thought (generally dated to the late 17th century), Europe entered a social ferment as debates concerning science (especially Aristotelian doctrine), philosophy, political ideology and commerce became the engines of social change. This was obviously not in the interests of the church, as it attempted to suppress many scientific discoveries. Eventually, however, it would be forced to accept that religion was no longer to be used as the sole basis of explanation.10

As early science was birthed (and therefore strongly influenced) by religious bodies and their edicts, it is impossible to accurately say when it first came about. For clarity’s sake, it could be approximated to the late Renaissance (c. 1550-1700) as by that time there were established academic institutions devoted to the pursuit of science. Of particular note were the remarkable inroads made by the physicist Isaac Newton (1642-1727, who conceived of a universal set of laws for physical movement) and the astronomers Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543, who discovered heliocentric cosmology) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642, who discovered the Earth’s rotation). These and other individuals made discoveries that challenged the church and created a tradition of rational inquiry which would attain pre-eminence during the the Age of Enlightenment as, divorced of significant spiritual attachment to the papacy, many sought a rational replacement.11

The Virus of Revolution

Western Europe plunged into the Enlightenment (c. 1650-1800) with great vigour. Superior education and expanding individual liberties saw the bulk of Europe (and most particularly the north-westernmost countries) experience a profound shift toward individual expression and the foundation of what would now be called civil rights as a product of vigorous debate and superior education. While this period established many of the social freedoms now taken for granted, it must be remembered at all times that in practical terms this was the age of opinionated individuals and receptive masses rather than an age of egalitarian thought exchange. As expressed by Immanuel Kant (b. Konigsberg, Prussia, 1724-1804) it was “an age of enlightenment… not yet an enlightened age.”12 In salons and by written correspondence, the ‘public’ (more accurately described as the literate public) discussed academic and politically contentious issues without regard to courtoisie (courtly manners).

Naturally, the movement is said to have had its leaders, most of whom had formal education. Thomas Hobbes (b. Westport, England, 1588-1679) had declared that the natural state of man was “a war of every man against every man,”13 asserting the right for the strong to rule, whereas John Locke (b. Bristol, England, 1632-1704) denounced the Divine Right of Kings and the ‘paternalauthority over subjectchildren’ that had been assumed to date (preferring an oligarchy which represented the interests of the people it governed).14 Voltaire (François Marie Arouet, b. Paris, France, 1694-1778) was a staunch atheist, stating that religion served no purpose other than to impede men of talent.15 (Candide, 1759). Jean-Jacques Rousseau (b. Geneva, Switzerland, 1712-1788) asserted that freedom was humankind’s natural quality (and is therefore often described as the ‘father of democracy’), despite his chauvinistic denigration of the role women played in ‘civilised’ debate.16

At any rate, the Enlightenment is the best demonstration of the virtues of polyglot thought. Over this cacophony, one voice is prevalent: that which questioned the inherent authority of monarchy, which ardently supported embryonic democracy, which championed academia and which was bold enough to challenge (in various ways) the institutions which had conspired to keep society immobile. There were shortcomings, as is to be expected: no reconciliation had yet been attempted between Protestants, Catholics or atheists, nor were women afforded a significant degree of power. Besides this, we should note that ‘the people,’ the lower echelons (and majority) of society, were financially and academically ill-equipped to participate in debate, while the disenfranchised and disempowered remained so. The net gain of the Enlightenment in broader terms, then, was to foster antipathy to stagnating monarchical regimes and to promote the revolutionary period (eventually translated into modern nationalism) which was soon to come.

The French Revolution of 1789 could be said to represent the actualisation of many of the Enlightenment’s ideals: abolition of birth privileges, establishment of a constitution and specified human rights, subordination of church to state, reform of inefficient and unjust judicial and administrative systems and promotion of bourgeois interests.17 Encircled by hostile states, however, the revolution invariably came under the aggressive sway of the Jacobins and then of Napoleon Bonaparte. True to form, the dramatic fall of L’Ancien Regime, Maximilien Robespierre’s (b. Arras, France, 1758-1794) Reign of Terror, the Napoleonic Wars and the deposition of traditional rulers across the entirety of Europe led to a conservative backlash at the Congress of Vienna, wherein liberalism was deemed dangerous: “the virus of revolution,” according to Klemens von Metternich (1773-1859), then the Austrian foreign minister.18 Rejuvenation of monarchism in the early 19th century was, however, akin to attempting to stem a tide. Discontent with existing power structures was endemic, flaring in 1848 and lingering long after.

Industry and Imperialism, the Engines of Modernity

All of the above occurred against a background of ongoing industrialisation, which surged into being in some areas and emerged lethargically in others, beginning with Great Britain in the mid-1700s and continuing to north-western Europe from the 1820s onward. Britain’s chief advantage was its laissez-faire economic system and experimentation with farming plots19 which led, indirectly, to more efficient farming methods and a dramatic surplus of rural labourers who moved to urban centres in search of employment. The frantic search for work grew exponentially as the agricultural economy became secondary to industrial production.20 Property (rather than hereditary titles) became paramount and it is evident that traditional bodies of authority had been supplanted by what was, essentially, a bourgeois revolution.21 Narcotics and alcohol were in vogue as a means of stress relief, leading some to claim that the urban lifestyle was an unnatural one.22 Nonetheless, the climate increasingly resembled modern consumerism and certified that bourgeois dominance was now an accepted reality. This, the culmination of individual effort, accommodated national self-determination perfectly.

The final phase of European political upheaval before the dawn of the new century was the formation and solidification of nations (most prominently Italy in 1861 and Germany in 1871), the sanctity of which was deemed inviolate. The European powers competed to expand to the fullest extent of their continents or annex territories overseas; until 1880 they had exercised minimal dominance over foreign continents, but by 1914 the vast bulk of the world had been partitioned or seized.23 One could blame the continuing Industrial Revolution of the 1870s (which was actually the most thorough) and increasing demand for resources, but the majority of territories (particularly in Africa) came at so great an expense that they were, therefore, objects of pride rather than political or financial leverage. Abundant displays of national industrial power also suggest this.24 In the final and most dramatic tilt of the scales, the nation and industrialism had replaced both church and monarchy as the bodies which offered inspiration, stability and solace. As such, they had (akin to the monarchy and church before them) also ceased to fulfil a progressive role.

I’ll Take a Breath Soon, I Promise

The Medieval hierarchy was simple by comparison to the intricacies of the modern state. However, in most fundamental regards they remain very similar: they both demand the capacity to believe ardently in abstract concepts (to the extent that they gain a perceived reality), both are a means to disseminate (overtly or passively) a common doctrine and both gained eminence as a result of the desire for order and purpose. They both enjoyed stages in which they acted as agents of reform, both were forced by circumstance to defend themselves militantly and (although it is not treated in the scope of this essay) both endured similar patterns of decline. It is true that the state was intended to embody new ideals: of secular unity, individual recognition, various bonds (real or imagined) and that the church (in neglecting to accept reform) failed to do so, but the inception of both systems occurred in virtually identical circumstances; defective institutions, as detailed above, suffered diminished prestige and the urge to replace them was thereby evoked.

Invariably, the answer lies in the fact that Europe has, since time immemorial, represented a bloc of geographically inter-connected factions with competing interests and individual identities. In truth the ideological institutions and power structures of all inhabited areas function according to the same patterns of ascent and decline; Europe merely does so to a greater extent, by virtue of its deeper fragmentation along racial, cultural and ideological lines and the exponentially expanding scale of conflict. This is, of course, the strength of its disunity and were we to inspect Europe’s history in a wholly superficial manner we could readily say that this obstinate fragmentation was, through conflict and collaboration, the means by which Europe changed until the Modern Era. In truth, the constancy of the fragmentation has engendered little fundamental change at all.


Footnotes:

  • 1 Perry, Marvin, Chase, Myrvin, Jacob, James R, Jacob, Margaret C, Von Laue, Theodore H.: “Western Civilisation: Ideas, Politics & Society (7th edition)” (Boston, USA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004), page XIX.
  • 2 Frank E. Smith: “Rome’s Decline and Christianity’s Ascent” <http://www.fsmitha.com/h1/ch23.htm> (last updated 2/4/2004, accessed 4/4/2004).
  • 3 Brown, Peter: “The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, AD 200-1000” (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), pages 4-20.
  • 4 Perry, Marvin, Chase, Myrvin, Jacob, James R, Jacob, Margaret C, Von Laue, Theodore H.: “Western Civilisation: Ideas, Politics & Society (7th edition)” (Boston, USA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004), page 400.
  • 5 Parker, Geoffrey: “Empire, War and Faith in Early Modern Europe” (London, England: Penguin Books Ltd, 2002), pages 224-226.
  • 6 Ibid, page 224.
  • 7 Paul Halsall, Fordham University: “Internet History Sourcebooks Project” <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/> (last updated 29/7/2001, accessed 25/3/2004).
  • 8 Parker, Geoffrey: “Empire, War and Faith in Early Modern Europe” (London, England: Penguin Books Ltd, 2002), pages 33-36.
  • 9 Perry, Marvin, Chase, Myrvin, Jacob, James R, Jacob, Margaret C, Von Laue, Theodore H.: “Western Civilisation: Ideas, Politics & Society (7th edition)” (Boston, USA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004), page 385.
  • 10 Ibid, page 410.
  • 11 Ibid, pages 411-418.
  • 12 Madden, Thomas F. “A Concise History of the Crusades” (Lanham, Maryland, USA: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Ltd. 1999), page 50.
  • 13 Thomas Hobbes: “Leviathan” (1651), reproduced by Richard Bear, University of Oregon: “Renascence Editions” <http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~rbear/hobbes/leviathan2.html> (last updated 30/9/2003, accessed 24/3/2004).
  • 14 Cannistraro, Philip V, Reich, John J.: “The Western Perspective: A History of Civilisation in the West (volume C: 1789-present)” (Orlando, Florida, UDA: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999), page 692.
  • 15 Ibid, page 701.
  • 16 Ibid, page 704.
  • 17 Perry, Marvin, Chase, Myrvin, Jacob, James R, Jacob, Margaret C, Von Laue, Theodore H.: “Western Civilisation: Ideas, Politics & Society (7th edition)” (Boston, USA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004), pages 474-476.
  • 18 Cannistraro, Philip V, Reich, John J.: “The Western Perspective: A History of Civilisation in the West (volume C: 1789-present)” (Orlando, Florida, UDA: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999), page 772.
  • 19 Perry, Marvin, Chase, Myrvin, Jacob, James R, Jacob, Margaret C, Von Laue, Theodore H.: “Western Civilisation: Ideas, Politics & Society (7th edition)” (Boston, USA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004), pages 510-512.
  • 20 Cannistraro, Philip V, Reich, John J.: “The Western Perspective: A History of Civilisation in the West (volume C: 1789-present)” (Orlando, Florida, UDA: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999), page 772.
  • 21 Perry, Marvin, Chase, Myrvin, Jacob, James R, Jacob, Margaret C, Von Laue, Theodore H.: “Western Civilisation: Ideas, Politics & Society (7th edition)” (Boston, USA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004), pages 520-524.
  • 22 Porter, Roy: “Addicted to Modernity: Nervousness in the Early Consumer Society” (University of Exeter Press: Exeter Studies in History, 1992), pages 180-190.
  • 23 Perry, Marvin, Chase, Myrvin, Jacob, James R, Jacob, Margaret C, Von Laue, Theodore H. “Western Civilisation: Ideas, Politics & Society (7th edition)” (Boston, USA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004), pages 675-692.
  • 24 Ibid, page 671.
  • Bibliography:
    Books:

  • Brown, Peter. “The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, AD 200-1000” (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2003).
  • Cannistraro, Philip V, Reich, John J.: “The Western Perspective: A History of Civilisation in the West (volume C: 1789-present)” (Orlando, Florida, UDA: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999).
  • Hobsbawm, E.J.: “Nations and Nationalism since 1780” (UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
  • Hutchinson, John: “Modern Nationalism” (London, UK: Fontana Press, 1994).
  • Kant, Immanuel (author), Guess, Raymond (ed.), Nisbet, H.B. (translator), Reiss, H.S. (ed.), Skinner, Quentin (ed.): “Kant: Political Writings” (UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
  • Madden, Thomas F. “A Concise History of the Crusades” (Lanham, Maryland, USA: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Ltd, 1999).
  • Parker, Geoffrey. “Empire, War and Faith in Early Modern Europe” (London, England: Penguin Books Ltd, 2002).
  • Perry, Marvin, Chase, Myrvin, Jacob, James R, Jacob, Margaret C, Von Laue, Theodore H. “Western Civilisation: Ideas, Politics & Society (7th edition)” (Boston, USA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004).
  • Porter, Roy: “Addicted to Modernity: Nervousness in the Early Consumer Society” (University of Exeter Press: Exeter Studies in History, 1992).
  • Stearns, Peter N and Hinshaw, John H. “The Industrial Revolution” (Santa Barbara, California, USA: ABC-CLIO Inc, 1996).

  • Internet:
  • Paul Halsall, Fordham University: “Internet History Sourcebooks Project” <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/> (last updated 29/7/2001, accessed 25/3/2004).
  • Eric G.E. Zuelow, The Nationalism Project: “The Nationalism Project: Homepage” <http://www.nationalismproject.org/> (last updated 10/10/2003, accessed 20/3/2004).
  • Richard Bear, University of Oregon: “Renascence Editions” <http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~rbear/hobbes/leviathan2.html> (last updated 30/9/2003, accessed 24/3/2004).
  • Frank E. Smith: “Rome’s Decline and Christianity’s Ascent” <http://www.fsmitha.com/h1/ch23.htm> (last updated 2/4/2004, accessed 4/4/2004).
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