Desmond Fennell on the history of Europe

Published in Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2005), Letters, Letters, Volume 13


—With regard to my article in the last issue (HI 13.5, Sept./Oct.2005) on revising the history of Europe, a small correction lest I leftany reader puzzled. Where I am discussing the beginnings of Europe,instead of ‘three centuries earlier under the declining Roman power’please read ‘six centuries earlier’.—Yours etc.,
Desmond Fennell


—I would like to congratulate Desmond Fennell on his excellentarticle ‘How the great story could be better told’ (HI 13.5, Sept./Oct.2005). I have a degree of admiration for those who can ‘think outsidethe box’ as his arguments so clearly demonstrate. Nonetheless, despitehis acceptance of the term ‘Age of Reason’ on the basis that it was thecentral preoccupation of the time, I suggest that it is a misnomer.Unfortunately it also implies that what went before belonged to an agewithout reason, tying in neatly with the idea that the medieval periodwas characterised by superstition and faith. While it is true thatEuropean medieval society took on faith that there was a God, a heavenand a hell, once this paradigm is accepted medieval behaviour can beseen as quite rational. After all, if heaven and hell exist, thenprayer, pilgrimages, penance and the influence of religious beliefs ondaily life make excellent sense. Thus medieval man acted and thoughtrationally according to the paradigm of the time. I believe it wouldmake better sense to rename the Age of Reason the ‘Age of Empiricism’and to understand that we still live in that era. We see it in ourobsession with proving things in a physical manner and ourcorresponding refusal to accept anything that cannot be weighed or putin a test tube. This seems reasonable enough until we recall the famousexhortation: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamtof in your philosophy’. In fact Desmond touches on this point when hewrites: ‘There is only evidence that [Europeans’] knowledge of physicalreality advanced greatly’. The Conquest of Paradise by Sale Kirkpatrickcontains an excellent account of the European mentality thatcharacterises what Desmond calls the Columbian Age. Incidentally, I usethe term ‘medieval’ throughout as a label of convenience, acceptingDesmond’s argument that it is a misnomer.

—Yours etc.,
Co. Cork


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