Ancient & modern

Allow me, gentle reader, without mentioning Saint Augustine for a moment, to throw three dates wildly in the air. These will be the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in 312; the death of the Emperor Justinian in 565; and the death of the Emperor Charlemagne in 814. From first to last we have five centuries to play with here; about the same amount of time we’ve had since what is called the Protestant Reformation — enough room to swing an armadillo. And neatly divisible into two halves, as our own rather abstract “modernity” by what is called the Enlightenment.

Now let us consider the characteristic features of what we call “mediaeval architecture” — towered facades, colonnaded ambulatories, subterranean crypts, interior vaulting, and the whole vocabulary that describes each subsequent development in the art of building, founded upon the design of Christian basilicas in Late Antiquity.

The dates I gave correspond to collapses. The first is a collapse of the pagan imperium, the second of the Christian effort to restore it, the third of the first focused scheme to unite Western Europe. But each end also represents a new beginning, in which forces concentrated by political means were released, to spread as conscious or unconscious ideals in the formation of a geographically Eurocentric order which for want of any plausible alternative we may term “Christendom.”

Yes, I am playing schoolteacher this morning, there being no formal classes at the seminary round the corner on Thursdays. From the height of an eagle (or drone) I am inviting a view over the formative landscape of what will constitute our civilization, itself built upon the foundations of a deeper antiquity; a kind of “New Testament,” if thou wilt, laid over the “Old,” as it were. Not the coming of Christ, which slices history neatly into years before and after the manger scene at Bethlehem, but the full institution of Christianity — the Church — as a tangible and unavoidable presence over a vast area whose frontiers, as the pagan Roman, suffer constant incursion from barbaric tribes who will need to be converted. And will always do thereafter.

Let’s bring Augustine into this, and perhaps his contemporaries, as Jerome and many more, in the succession of Fathers of the Church. In looking for tipping points between the “ancient” and the “modern” (yes, I am reviving the Battle of the Books) we find something remarkable in their pages. Assuming, of course, some minimal education, we read there a worldview that is perceptibly our own; an intellectual environment where we are essentially at home, in a way that we are not among the older Greeks and Romans, or even among the earlier Fathers so often reasoning with a world from which they are estranged, to theological views not always confident.

At Hippo Regius, where Bishop Augustine presides in his later life over church and cloisters recognizable in their fragmentary remains, we are “back in Europe.” And this although the city, which is in Africa not Europe, will fall to the Vandals in the very year of Augustine’s death, and later to the Arabs. (He has anticipated that; it’s all there in the City of God.)

Or put this another way, in the words of a lady I know who was a (pointedly “secular”) archaeologist in Egypt, digging through a first-century cemetery in Sinai. She uncovered the grave of a young lady, buried with her child. She had uncovered several, but the skeleton in this one had a necklace on which had been hanging a Crucifix. This had a startling effect on the digger. “One of us!” she thought, quite involuntarily, as she began her own personal journey of return to the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” Church of her ancestors.

The term and concept of the “Middle Ages,” or media saecula, was an invention of the later Italian humanists, since absorbed into historical science at large, and constituting one of its most important false premisses. It was adopted because it would serve to isolate “Christian Europe” in a ghetto, from which we may escape to more comfortable suburbs with better plumbing and electric lights. Or among Protestants, to smartly skip over that part of their own heritage unmistakably Catholic. The idea of historical “progress” — Ancient, Mediaeval, Modern, Post — depends upon it, and for the last five centuries we have been betraying that heritage, thereby denying what we are.

For our next Renaissance I propose that we simply skip over the “Modern” claims, and resume our civilizational identity as the Moderns who succeeded the worthy and respected Ancients.

See also: here.