The Real History of Europe

My first book, 54 years ago, was a travel book that began its itinerary in Vienna. In those days it was rare for Irish people to travel on the Continent let alone write about any but its southern, Catholic parts. In the Preface, reflecting on the relationship between the Irish and modern Europe, I wrote: “We Irish are regarded as an ancient people, but we are also very young and new. The modern world has made itself without our asking.” One of the respects in which Europe has done this is in the work of giving European history a shape. Between the seventeenth century and the early twentieth, a standard narrative was established which has remained essentially unchanged. Irish historians, involved defensively in domestic history, played no part in that work. So if now, at this late stage, an Irishman who is an ardent lover of Europe and its history challenges Europe’s standard manner of narrating that history, and wants it somewhat differently done, it should not be surprising.

     I believe that Europe, like the civilisations that preceded it which left behind sufficient historical records—like  Rome, Greece, Babylon, Egypt, China— deserves to have its story told straightforwardly and as truthfully as possible before it, in turn, passes into history. In this respect we have not been served well by those contemporary historians who entitle their books ‘History of Europe’.

If we are not presented under that title with an account of the land and climate between the Atlantic and the Urals, and a story of what happened in all of that from prehistory to the twentieth century—that can happen, it happened a few years ago in a big book published in London—we certainly have the following experience regularly. We open the book to an account of something called in every European language ‘The Middle Age’ (in English, eccentrically, ‘Middle Ages’, but no matter). Formally this is the start of the story but its self-description says it is the middle of it. Is the story to be told perhaps in the manner of a modernistic novel with the middle of the narrative coming (clever!) before its first part? A brief investigation finds that this is not the case. The first chapters deal mainly with Goths (Visi- and Ostro-), Vandals, Huns, Avars and others, peoples with whom Europe in no period, let alone its middle one, had anything to do,  Nor, indeed, do these chapters appear to be recounting the ‘middle age’ of any history known to man..

The ‘middle age’ in question turns out to be simply the way that orthodox European historians name the thousand years between the end of the Roman Empire in the West in the 5th century and the end of the first age of European history around 1500. In the matter of serving intelligibility or logic of the historical narrative, they might as well have called this stretch of historical time the ‘humpty-dumpty age’! Clearly, if we are at this late stage to have a real history of Europe, one which is in fact what it purports to be, the first step will be to get rid of the narrative boorishness that, beginning with something called ‘The Middle Age’, arrives after centuries of extraneous narrative at the beginning and first age of Europe.

     Pressing also for removal is that recurrent feature of the conventional history of Europe that presents myths as reality. Nothing wrong with myths in themselves: they are a device by which people who want to give special importance and meaning to an event, prehistoric or historical, do so figuratively rather than literally. But they are by definition not history, not what a great historian called wie es eigentlich gewesen—‘as it really was’.

     Beginning in northern Europe in the eighteenth century, but preponderantly in the nineteenth, backward-directed historical myth-making worked powerfully. Its agents were Protestants and classical Liberals who, having created or accepted the myth of Modernity and Progress, wanted to show themselves and their era as heirs to modernising and progressive pioneers whose heads touched the sky; men who by their action and their minds liberated mankind from the thraldom and darkness of the Pope,  the Catholic Church and clergy of any hue, along with Superstition and Tradition of all kinds. To this end, as historians of Europe, or simply as writers about that history, they created a ‘post-medieval’ European history that had been launched, liberatingly for Europeans and mankind, by three mythical events: ‘the Renaissance’, ‘the Reformation’ and ‘the Enlightenment’. As an endeavour by those who engaged in it, it is understandable, but its creations are useless to real history.

      It is not true that, first in fifteenth-century Italy, then in Europe generally, there was a rebirth of high culture, artistic achievement and intellectual vigour after a long. dark period when these were absent. It is not true that ‘the Reformation’ was an event in European history: that at a certain point in the sixteenth century Europe rejected the Pope and opted for a Protestant reform of Christian faith and practice more in keeping with the Gospel. And it is not true that from the end of the seventeenth century to the French Revolution, leading European minds experienced a degree of insight equivalent to that which the Buddha achieved and which pious Buddhists aspire to.

       So it is necessary in the real telling of European history to eschew a narrative which presents or suggests those untruths. Primarily this would be so as to keep to the true story. But it would also render more acceptable to the rational reader a story that in narrating the French Revolution must mention its savagery, and in narrating twentieth-century Europe must advert to the fact that this great civilisation produced the century most destructive of human life in human history. In both instances a story to be told in no moralistic vein but simply to nourish and fortify ourselves and future generations with our true story.

     It would begin as follows.

                                                 The First Age (c.1050 to c.1500 AD)

                                                     The name

The word ‘Europe’ originated in an ancient Greek myth as the name of a Phoenician princess whom the supreme god Zeus, in the form of a white bull, carried off from her homeland to Crete. There in human form he mated with her, producing three noble sons who on their deaths became the judges of the underworld.  In ancient Greek, and later, Roman times, geographers used the word to describe the western part of the Eurasian land-mass stretching from the Atlantic to somewhere in the Caucasus or in what we now call Russia. In the sense that came to predominate—namely, a group of culturally and politically distinct peoples sharing a territory and a common civilisation, something like Ancient Greece but located in western Eurasia—it  began to take shape in the eleventh and twelfth centuries AD.

                                                     The curtain-raiser

Three centuries earlier there had been what might be called a curtain-raiser. It was around the time that Islamic civilisation, having absorbed the high culture of ancient Greece and Alexandria, was entering its golden age under the Abbasid Caliphate which ruled from Afghanistan to Spain. Of the Germanic peoples who had conquered most of the territory that previously formed the Western Roman Empire, the Franks, with their capital in Paris, controlled the largest area. In 771, after centuries of warfare among themselves and with others, Charles, later surnamed ‘the Great’ and in French called Charlemagne, became king and, following the death of his co-ruling brother, sole ruler. During his reign, which lasted until his death in 814, Europe had, so to speak, a false start. 

The Franks were Christians and they imposed Christianity, by force if necessary, on any people they conquered; the death penalty for paganism was abolished only in 797. Twenty-four years before that, in 773, Pope Hadrian I had appealed to Charles for help against the Germanic Lombards who, established for two centuries as rulers of most of Italy, had occupied the city of Rome. Charles entered Italy with an army, defeated the Lombards, declared himself their king and reaffirmed the Papal sovereignty over central Italy which had been guaranteed by his father Pepin the Short. Most of  Italy belonged thenceforth to the Frankish realm.

Having established his capital at Aachen in northwest Germany, Charles extended Francia, as the realm was called, beyond the Saxons and Frisians to the border with Denmark. He incorporated the Bavarians and established a defensive march in Austria. Defensively again, beyond the Pyrenees, he fortified a Spanish march to prevent the Islamic Moors, who ruled most of Spain, from ever again pushing north into Francia, as they had done in 732 when Charles’ ancestor Charles Martel had repulsed them at Poitiers. (It was from that Charles that the dynasty was named ‘Carolingian’.) On Christmas Day, 800, in Rome, Pope Leo III crowned Charles as "Emperor of the Romans". This action caused much displeasure in the surviving Eastern Roman Empire (called Byzantium by western historians) which was ruled from Constantinople, where the Empress Irene was considered sole Roman emperor. But some years later Constantinople recognised Charles as co-emperor.

Charles’ reign and that of his son and successor Louis the Pious were marked by a cultural revival in which the Church was the main agent, with its bishops and abbots working under the king-emperor’s patronage. As the chief architect of this revival, Charles was able to draw on the intellectual resources not only of Italy, but also of Christian Ireland and of northeast England previously christianised by the Irish. The palace school which he established was headed by the English deacon, scholar, and theologian Alcuin of York. The practical emphasis was on establishing, in place of many variants, authentic texts of the Bible and of religious rituals and on spreading literacy, good Latin, and knowledge of elementary mathematics.

Monasteries were encouraged to make copies of patristic and classical Roman writings, thus preserving them for later centuries. This copying adopted a beautiful new script, Carolingian Minuscule, which became the basis of the later printed alphabet. Additionally. Charles established a regionalised administration and improved the economy by maintaining a degree ot public order, building roads and reforming the currency. In the palace school and in court circles the term ‘Europe’ was current as a description of Latin Christendom, which was virtually identical with the Frankish empire. A court poet described Charles as ‘rex pater Europae’, king, father of Europe.

After Charles’ death in 814, his son, Louis the Pious, maintained the empire in face of  Viking attacks from the sea. After his death with three sons living, the process began which made Charlemagne’s empire a mere curtain-raiser for Europe; a false start rather than its beginning.. Because Frankish tradition imposed partible inheritance among living sons, there was a  tripartite division of the realm. After a brief civil war, Charles, Lothair and Louis agreed in the Treaty of Verdun to divide the empire into three kingdoms. The divisions, longitudinal from north to south, produced West, Middle and East Francia. Lothair, as the eldest and king of the middle kingdom, bore also the title of emperor. Through several subsequent generations, revised partitions together with territorial breakaways would transform West Francia into the kingdom of France, East Francia into the kingdom of Germany, and erase Middle Francia as an entity. At the same time, a ‘rebalkanisation’ into lordships of various sizes and kinds was occurring.

In the latter part of Charlemagne’s reign sea-faring warriors and traders from Denmark and Norway, called Vikings or Norsemen, had become an aggressive presence in the North Sea and North Atlantic. They travelled in distinctive longships which had a shallow draft that made them easy to beach and usable in rivers as well as on the sea. Their lightness made them easily portable. In England, Scotland, Ireland and northwest France, the Vikings raided monasteries for their treasures, often killing the monks. Emboldened by the death of Louis the Pious in 840 and the quarrels that ensued, they attacked Rouen and, using the Seine as a highway, besieged Paris until they were bought off with gold. It would be the first of four attacks on the city by the Norsemen. Ultimately the West Frankish king Charles the Simple, tired of buying them off, would agree to yield to the Norseman Rollo the territory thenceforth called the Duchy of Normandy on condition that he would be baptised a Christian and guard the estuaries of the Seine from further attacks.

      From Ireland, the Isle of Man and eastern England to Iceland, France and Scandinavia the Vikings established a network of trading settlements, often trading in slaves, many of whom they brought back to their Scandinavian homelands. This western trading network was linked with an eastern one, established mainly by Swedes called Varangians, that reached through the lands of the Eastern Slavs to the Middle East and Constantinople. In the course of this eastern penetration a principality called Rus after a Varangian people was established in Kiev. Converted to Orthodox Christianity, it would ultimately, after an invasion by the Mongols, become the Russian zardom centred on Moscow. 

In 924 the Frankish imperial title had fallen vacant. Thirty-eight years later, in Rome in 962, Pope John XII crowned the German king Emperor of the Romans, thereby initiating a quite different story.

                                      Making a secure space for Europe

Throughout the tenth century Viking aggression, with attendant settlements, continued                                           

in the West. Both would continue well into the eleventh century. For a time, from 900 to 955, even more serious disruption was caused by a Central Asian people, the Magyars (also known as Hungarians), who after a long migration had settled in the Pannonian Plain on both sides of the Danube and raided westwards. Clearly, before any new civilisation could be established, stability must be restored.

 The Magyars defeated a Bavarian army and a Frankish army led by the then emperor. In the following years they made powerful looting raids into Germany, through France as far as Spain and into Italy. In 955 their incursions into the West were stopped by a decisive defeat at the Lechfeld near Augsburg at the hands of Otto I, Duke of Saxony and King of the Germans. It was as a consequence of this that Pope John XII conferred on Otto the vacant Roman imperial crown. Thereafter, the Magyars, having withdrawn to their base territory, roughly present-day Hungary, concentrated on building a Hungarian state.  In 1001 their leaders accepted Christianity, made Stephen I their first king, and were confirmed in their territory by the Pope.

     About ten years before that, beginning in Aquitaine and than spreading to other parts of France and beyond its borders, the Peace of God movement had emerged. Bishops and abbots summoned assemblies of villagers, lords and knights to meet in the presence of saints’ relics. The assemblies were made to swear to keep the peace. the nobles to refrain from killing unarmed clergy and civilian men, women and children. As this movement continued into the eleventh century it was seconded by a Truce of God movement which became one with it. The Truce of God was a commitment to refrain from fighting on holy days and on Fridays. In Germany efforts were made to ensure that the Emperor’s duty to maintain the Landfriede or peace of the realm became more fact than theory. In Anglo-Saxon England similar efforts were made to make the legally stipulated ‘king’s peace’ a reality. All these efforts failed to produce decisive results, especially in France; but they at least made commonplace the doctrine that violence could not run rampant and that there were ethical limits to what powerful armed men might do. A decisive reduction of wars among the nobles had to wait until the summoning of the First Crusade by Pope Urban II in 1095 induced many knights and their retinues to set out for Jerusalem.

In the course of the eleventh century Viking maritime activity diminished and gradually ceased. Many Vikings had settled permanently abroad, merging with the local Christian population where such existed and in Iceland founding a new Norse nation. Others remained in Scandinavia to enjoy their accumulated wealth. Christianity had been making inroads there, and now strong Christian monarchies emerged in each of the three nations. The fact that these nascent nation-states forbade the enslavement of Christians removed much of the incentive for trade. In 1066 the now French-speaking Norse of Normandy invaded and conquered England and established a ruling dynasty.

Growing in the form of Latin Christendom was the community of nation-states that would make Europe. In 1095 even Scandinavia sent contingents to join the first European joint venture, the First Crusade.