February 17, 2013


Christopher Dawson and the History We Are Not Told (Jeffrey Hart, 2/16/13, Imaginative Conservative)
As an historian, Dawson radically revises our sense of the continuity of Western culture, but within that continuity, its vicissitudes and heroisms. For the ordinary educated consciousness, what happened in Western Europe after the collapse of the Roman order tends to be a blank page labelled "the dark ages." The period from the fifth to the tenth centuries was indeed characterized by social chaos, roving bands of pillagers, Norse invasions, but as Dawson makes clear, there were heroic continuities, an enormous effort on the part of beleaguered communities to preserve and add to the inheritance of religion, culture, and learning and to provide the basis for a revival of civilized order. [...]

T. S. Eliot, lecturing in the United States, was once asked what writer was then the most powerful intellectual influence in England. Eliot answered, Christopher Dawson. That this influence was rarefied need not be doubted, but Dawson was a prolific writer, an original thinker, a skillful polemicist, and clearly, a deeply felt presence for such a person as Eliot - of which more in a moment. But before speaking of what I would call the Dawson Revolution in our sense of the shape of Western history, I would like to revert to what I have called the aesthetics of erudition, or what might also be called the humility of learning. For example, I will adduce his Gifford Lectures, delivered at the University of Edinburgh in and 1949 and later published as his magisterial Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (1950).
The Gifford Lectureship is a very distinguished matter, and it is characteristic of Dawson that he felt he could not rise to the occasion. Yet he did so magnificently, though his manner was Dawsonish. As his daughter records, "His shy manner and quiet intonation, combined with a lack of confidence in his own powers, must have made him seem the most unassuming of Gifford Lecturers, and of course, the deepest thinkers are not invariably the best speakers."
But open the published version of these Gifford Lectures. The first thing you encounter is a frontispiece photograph entitled "Figure of Christ: From the Bewcastle Rood (c. 700)." In this book there are eight such photographs of various historical objects with immensely erudite commentaries by Dawson listed as "Notes on the Illustrations." Because the learning here is so recondite, exquisite, and, when seen in perspective, important, I will quote in full the "note" on the Bewcastle Christ. The reader of this essay may savor it as a good introduction to Dawson:

The Anglian High Crosses are among the earliest and most remarkable monuments of Western Christendom. Although they date from the first age of Northumbrian Christianity, they show an astonishing mastery of design and execution, unlike anything to be found elsewhere in Western Europe during this period. The new art owes its origin to the deliberate importation of Christian artists and Christian craftsmen from the Mediterranean world by the leaders of the Anglian church, above all St. Wilfrid and St. Benedict Bishop in the second half of the seventh century. But while the ornamentation, especially the vine scroll, shows clear signs of Mediterranean (Syrian) influence, the style is not purely imitative, but represents an original Anglian renaissance of classical Roman traditions. It is in fact a true 'Romanesque' art which anticipates the Continental development by centuries. The Bewcastle cross has a particularly close association with the great age of the Northumbrian church, because it was erected in commemoration of King Alchfrith, the friend of St. Wilfrid and the supporter of the Roman party at the Synod of Whitby (664). It stands on the site of an old Roman fort high up on the Cumbrian moors beyond the Roman Wall. The figure of Christ in Majesty resembles that on the earlier and even finer Rood at Ruthwell in Durnfriesshire. In both cases, the face is unbearded, but carries a moustache. The Bewcastle inscription is entirely runic, whereas at Ruthwell the corresponding figure has a Latin inscription - IHS XPS IUDEX AEQUITATIS. BESTI ET DRACONES COGNOVERUNT IN DESERT0 SALVATOR-EM MUNDI. It seems that both of these great crosses were set up as triumphant assertions of the Cross over the forces of outer barbarism.

There is much of Dawson here in what amounts to a "minor" passage in a major work: his sense of the past as a living and present thing, his immersion in detail, his connoisseur's judgments, his awareness of civilization as over against the "outer barbarism."

The queer thing about calling them the Dark Ages is that they were the period when the Light spread universally to Europe.

For a spectacularly good account of Dawson's thought and import, we recommend our friend James Lothian's The Making and Unmaking of the English Catholic Intellectual Community, 1910-1950
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Posted by at February 17, 2013 12:13 PM

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