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Monday, January 31, 2005

Europa pursued

Jacques Le Goff's latest, The Birth of Europe, reviewed in the Spectator by Eric Christiansen. (Last week of free online access to the Spectator, curses.) Le Goff takes on the concept of Europe, it seems; and alas, it seems not quite what one would expect of the great man - although it does sound very French:

... For the sake of argument, Europa becomes a single hyperactive graduate student. She thinks, feels, becomes aware, and ‘rediscovers her sense of history’. She is ‘stupefied’, she ‘embarks on research’, ‘pursues a line of development’ which started in the 12th century when she was ‘really bubbling over’, and she still ‘dances and sings and plays music’. [...] The jargon has a long and respectable history across the Channel; but it is only fair to point out that it is not absolutely necessary in the writing of historical surveys of large subjects. [...]

... That ‘line of development’ which Europe pursued from the Middle Ages onwards is identified at one point as the separation of church and state, or the religious and the secular. We are often told that Muslims cannot make this distinction, as if Iran and Saudi Arabia were the only Muslim countries, and it may be that the Prophet himself did not choose to. Nor did Pope Gregory VII, from whose assertion of papal power Le Goff traces European secularism; he and many others wanted a clergy free from state control in order to be able to save mankind from itself more intrusively, not less. His opponents never renounced their own religious responsibilities, so that alongside the development of church-state separation it is impossible to ignore an equally vigorous tradition of church-state merger, from Charlemagne to Stalin, mutatis mutandis. It would be reassuring to find that the former was in some sense more characteristic of Europe than the latter; but you can never be sure.

That last sentence tells you what Mr Christiansen thinks... (As I recall, he is one of the last distinguished 'Mr's of our Universities.) Curiously enough, one of my undergraduates made the same assertion about Gregory VII's policies and the separation of Church and State. And there was me thinking he [undergrad, I mean] had just done the old anachronistic-imposition-of-modern-priorities-upon-the-past job! It sounds as if Le Goff has decided that laicite (how do I get accents in Blogger?) is not France's problem, but her destiny; and has then identified France with Europe. Oh well. Had better read the book and see - but possibly wait until the NLS acquires its copy, rather than shelling out...