Catholic historiography v. independent thought

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2006), Letters, Letters, Medieval History (pre-1500), Pre-Norman History, Volume 14

Sir,

—Desmond Fennell (HI 13.5, Sept./Oct. 2005) avoids the Dark Agesentirely when the Church so ruthlessly imposed its dedication tosuperstition and ignorance that the Celtic Church in Ireland,sufficiently remote to escape the worst of its baneful influence, hadto rescue continental Europe. The protection of Charles the Baldallowed the best of those pioneers, the critical-thinking Irish monk,Johannes Scotus Erigena, to advance this work, for which he wasrepeatedly condemned by successive popes over the following centuries,at the Councils of Valencia (855), Langres (859) and Vercelli (1050).
The Middle Ages saw the great Languedoc civilisation wiped out bythe Albigensian Crusaders after Arnald-Amalric, later rewarded with thearchbishopric of Narbonne, uttered the most infamous decree of theepoch when the town of Béziers fell in 1209: ‘Kill them all, God willknow his own’. It is important to stress that the 20,000 inhabitantswere slaughtered not because they were all Cathar heretics but becausemost were Catholics who tolerated heretics, Jews and Muslims. They wereinternational traders whose independent thought came from all availablesources. They paid for this ‘crime’ with mass immolations at the handsof the church. This was indeed ‘stupidity, cruelty and oppression’ on ascale not seen again until the Counter-Reformation produced itsmasterpiece: the Thirty Years’ War between 1618 and 1648. Fennellignores these unpalatable details.
Why should we place such an emphasis on a pre- and post-ColumbianAge when the co-thinkers and survivors of this horrendous onslaught bychurch and absolutist feudalism only lived on in northern Italy becauseneither pope nor German emperor could afford to allow the other toadvance in that region? That Renaissance was suppressed by the pope andthe Dominican Inquisition in alliance with Spanish absolutism; theburning at the stake of Giordano Bruno in 1600 and the forced publicrecanting of Galileo in 1633 demonstrated that canonised ignorance wasall that could flourish under papal auspices. Humanity’s advance wasforced northwards. Who would seek to deny that study of the printedbible, banned by the martyred Saint Thomas Moore, was there-establishment of the process of the development of the criticalfaculties of the individual on a far wider scale than existed in theworld of antiquity? We do not need Desmond Fennell to tell us that theReformation was complex and differed from state to state, but who woulddeny the world-historical significance for the advance of the modernworld of its culmination, the beheading of Charles I in 1649?
And who on the face of the planet, other than Desmond Fennell,believes that ‘There is no evidence that between 1500 and 1914Europeans, or more precisely their élites, became morally betterpersons and improved their overall understanding of reality; there isevidence only that their knowledge of physical reality advancedgreatly’. Only a deeply deluded religious person could believe that an‘overall understanding of reality’ was unconnected with ‘knowledge ofphysical reality’. What have we lost of the ‘overall reality’ tocompensate for our greatly advanced knowledge of reality? The ‘wisdomof the ancients’ maybe, or some insight into the essence of God’s love(not available to independent-thinking heretics, of course)?
Fennell deals not ‘more precisely’ but exclusively with élites inhis piece. The rise of nationalism in its egalitarian form in theEnlightenment, culminating in the French Revolution, or the rise ofsocialist ideas culminating in the Russian Revolution are alikeuntreated in his world-view. He has no welcome for the broadening anddeepening of human culture and social egalitarianism from the narrowslave-owning Greek and Roman civilisations, to the wider feudalcultures of the Middle Ages, to the development of mercantile societiesin Venice, Holland and England, to the modern broad-based nations wherepoliticians must at least con the majority to achieve only temporarypower. This Catholic-apologetic historiography has no role in modernsecular Ireland.

—Yours etc.,
GERALD J. DOWNING
Cricklewood
London

My article did not purport to give my world-view or to dealcomprehensively with European history, much less to identify thelatter’s Evil Genius. In the space available, I simply criticised, onstated grounds, the standard History of Europe and suggested a few waysin which, I believe, that history could be brought closer to a ‘clear,true story that makes sense’. True, I did not manage to includereference to what Mr Downing calls ‘the Dark Ages’, a term that I thinkhas passed out of respectable use. My suggestion for that period wouldbe ‘The Age of Transition’ (between Rome and Europe), beginning withDiocletian in 284 and extending to around the year 1000, this beingsubdivided into Late Antiquity and, after 751, Prelude to Europe.Contrary to what Mr Downing writes, I understand that several humanist,art-loving popes were central figures in the so-called ItalianRenaissance. And he must have misread me if he believes that I said orbelieve that an ‘overall understanding of reality’ is unconnected with‘knowledge of physical reality’.
DESMOND FENNELL,
Anguillara
Rome

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