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103 of 105 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very difficult but worth your time, October 17, 2005
Historian Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) saw religion as the cornerstone of culture. Specifically, this Harvard scholar saw Christianity as the root system that grew into what we call, invariably capitalized and announced with great fanfare, "The West." As someone who recently acquired a master's degree in history, I can tell you that Christopher Dawson's name never came up in any of my classes. Sure, I mostly studied American history, which would pretty much preclude reference to a scholar whose work centered on the development of Europe, but even in the classes I took on European history his name never appeared on a single syllabus. His name also never came up in the myriad courses I took on Christian theology and history. After reading "Religion and the Rise of Western Culture," I think I know why. First, the book is an extremely tough slog. If this collection of his writings is any indication, Dawson's knowledge of European history is encyclopedic. No one outside of a graduate level seminar could hope to follow all the ins and outs of this book. Second, and most important, academia has little interest in promoting a historian who argues that Christianity shaped all aspects of modern life. Dawson's claims are unpopular and not morally relativistic.

The author sees Christianity as a unique force in human development, a force that constantly overcomes any obstacles placed in its path, either on purpose or by the vagaries of history. In the case of "Religion and the Rise of Western Culture," those obstacles range from the decline and collapse of the Roman Empire to the mass migrations of the early medieval period to the rise of cities and organized commerce. Presiding over and infusing all of these changes is the Christian faith. The perception that Christianity is a static, ossified system locked in rigid dogma stretching back through the ages, Dawson easily proves, is totally and utterly false. Time and time again the Church and its many institutions--missionaries, monasteries, new and dynamic religious orders--continuously renewed both the Church and European society. Renewal and dynamism in Europe during the Middle Ages? Is this guy insane? There is a popular tendency, however erroneous, to view the "Middle Ages" or "Medieval Europe" as a time and place of sporadic intellectual and cultural development. We've all seen movies or heard stories involving denizens of the Middle Ages staggering around in filthy rags murdering each other in fits of barbaric rage. If you subscribe to that view, "Religion and the Rise of Western Culture" will knock your socks off and slap some sense into your head at the same time!

I know a bit more about early European history than the average person on the street, at least I hope I do, so the idea that the Middle Ages represented a period of vast change doesn't come as a surprise to me. What does amaze me is how MUCH was going on. Dawson's work is a veritable blizzard of names, places, and ideas. He moves from Rome to Augustine to Bede to Aquinas with an ease that boggles the mind. He discusses in great depth the rise of monasteries in Ireland, how these institutions kept knowledge alive during dark times, and how they received and then transmitted knowledge to other parts of Europe. Dawson discusses the development of the liturgy and the effect that ritual had on people. He talks about the rise of the universities at Bologna and Paris, and how Church law helped give birth to civil law. You want to know about guilds and the rise of cities as they pertain to the Catholic Church? It's here in mind-boggling detail. The author also finds time to emphasize the importance of Byzantium and the Orthodox Church and tie them to the main currents of Western Europe. He describes doctrinal debates, the relation of the Church to European monarchies, and roughly a billion other ideas I don't have the space to summarize here.

What I liked best about the book, and what sort of helped bring the themes Dawson tries to explicate in the narrative to the fore, concerns the numerous migrations and invasions throughout Europe from the fall of Rome to roughly the tenth century. The book shows how Christianity, despite suffering great material losses from many of these invasions, reestablished its institutions and brought these barbarians into the embrace of greater Europe. Sometimes this process involved total conversion, other times Christianity operated side by side with tribal customs and law codes (see Beowulf for evidence of how Christian themes took up position next to barbarian values), but in every case the Church eventually triumphed. Dawson's work underscores how a theology first articulated by a single man in Palestine eventually led to the creation of mankind's greatest achievements. Reading "Religion and the Rise of Western Culture" makes one wonder how the West can ever survive without the spiritual and transformative qualities derived from the Christian faith. It's tempting to argue that it cannot, at least not in any recognizable form. Dawson claims outright that the West will die without Christianity.

It's easy to see why the author feared for the future of European civilization. When he wrote his works on the relation between Christianity and Western Civilization, the horrors of the twentieth century were rearing their ugly heads. Two world wars of appalling barbarity coupled with the rise of harmful ideologies greatly concerned Christopher Dawson. He saw National Socialism and Communism as great "walling off" processes that cut off millions of people from their common Christian underpinnings by either distorting the message (National Socialism) or through attempts to displace Christianity completely (Communism). "Religion and the Rise of Western Culture" isn't an easy read, not by a long shot, but it's worth the time and effort. I would definitely read his other works.
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Who Taught Western Man to Read, Think, and to Learn, July 4, 2009
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Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) had this book published in 1950, and the book is not dated. Dawson's research, knowledge, and wisdom made this book "a timeless classic" which no bona fide Medieval historian can ignore. The panoramic view Dawson presented gives readers a profound understanding of the history, ideas, and concepts of Western Civilization.

Dawson started this book with a good assessment of Europe during the collapse of the Roman Empire. He devoted the first chapter to terrible economic, social, and political conditions that befell Europeans from c. 500-750 A.D. Yet, the Catholic Church tenaciously held on to what was of left of Western Civilization. Dawson vividly described the importance of the Irish Celtic monks and the Benedictine monks in both preserving learning and spread their learning via their missionary zeal. It was the Benedictines, started by St. Benedict (480-544), who, upon meeting their Irish Celtic counterparts taught the Irish practicality and gave Irish monasticism a more sensible and less rigorous rule (The Benedictine Rule). Dawson did not fail to notice the influence of the Benedictines when one of their own was selected Pope-Pope Gregory I 590-604)who is credited for not only learning and Catholic leadership. Readers who appreciate classic music should note that Pope Gregory supported the music of Gregorian Chant which was the beginning of Classical Music. Dawson was aware of this and included it in his book.

Dawson wrote a good chapter on the Catholic Church's assimiliation of the Nothern Barbarians. The conversion of Clovis (480-520) was historically important when one considers that Clovis' empire (basically modern France)was open to the Benedictines and the spread of knowledge and learning. The rise of the Franks under Charles Martel (717-742), Pepin (741-768), and espeically Charlemagne (768-814)was important to the Western Civilization, the spread of the Catholic Faith, and a renewal of the Catholic Faith. Chalremange's palace school at Aachen was a center for learned men and drew students and clergy where literacy and texts were developed that enhanced and preserved the learning of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The Benedictine Alcuin (730-804)and his scholars developed Latin texts and developed a uniform system of script called Bookhand which included upper and lower case letters and punctuation.

All of this almost came to an end during the separation of the Carolingian Empire and invastions by the Saracens, Magyars, and especially the Vikinngs. The Viking raids and then invasions almost destroyed Western Civilization. Their descruction of monastaries was almost a catastrophy. However, as Dawson metnioned if one monastery survived, it drew other monks who renewed the work of leearning and lived a disciplined of Chant, prayer, and teaching/learning. The Viking leaders who led lives of lawlessness and plunder had to have law and order to rule their newly conquered areas, and the literacy of the Catholic leaders and monks helped the Vikings with administration but more importantly civilized them as good Catholics.

What was lost with the collapse of the Carolingian Frankish Empire was gained in Germany. Europe and the Catholic Church were saved by Otto II's victory over the Magyars (the Hungarians) in 955 at the Battle of Lechfeld. The German rulers then had the power and recognized authority to nominate Popes and bishops. The Catholic authorities orginally accepted this arrangement to mute the influence and power of Italian/Roman nobility. However, this arrangement stopped when Pope Boniface VIII (1073-1085) excommunicated Henry IV (1056-1106)over the Investature Controversy (who would invest the German bishops-the Pope or German rulers). This GRADUALLY led to the Catholic Church's (the Universal Church)independence from secular rulers.

Dawson did not exclude the Byzantine Greek Church and Western Civilization. Dawson argued that the Byzantines were more interested in using their supposed enemies against each other which interferred with missionary work. Yet, some of the German rulers' imperialism also alienated many of the Slavic people some of whom became Catholic such as the Polish and Hungarians. Dawson also explained the religious and political differences between the Latin Catholic West and the Byzantine East. Some of these differences were made worse by the Crusaders taking control of Constantinople in 1204. Dawson saw the earlier Crusades as Catholic and European unity which was ruined by political rivalries.

Dawson also gave credit to the gradual urbanization of Medieval Europe. The Medieval guilds developed a sense of religious and civic pride that were acceptable to urban residents. The guildsmen developed a sense of honest business and economic "fair play" that mostly avoided economic and social conflict. Dawson was clear that the guilds also provided charity and help to those who needed it. The guildsmen organzied Passion Plays and held the Catholic Church in their midst as a center of both religious liturgy and social influence. The rise of the Medieval cities started to end serfdom and the feudal system.

Dawson also connectes the Medieval towns with the expansion of learning-the rise of the universities. The older cathedral schools and monastic schools were not developed to handle large numbers of students. The schools at Monte Casino, Italy and at Bec in France were outstanding institutions, but they could not handle the increased number of students. Dawson contrasted the University of Paris(c. 1200), with its focus on philosophy and theology, with the University of Bologna (c. 1158). The latter university focused on Roman and Canon Law which were connected. The University of Bologna was organized by the studemts as a secular institution. The University of Paris took pride as a center of Catholic philosophy and theology so much so that law studies were excluded. The students at Paris were at times undisciplined, impetuous, etc. They had little respect for tradition and the past. Yet, they could be serious students especially when Peter Abelard (1079-1142) taught there. He was considered a master of logic and dialectics.

Another well known scholar who taught at the University of Paris was St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)whose synthesis of reason and faith is considered a work of genius. Dawson stated that rigid logic, careful debate, and reason not only had application to the study of philosophy and theology, but such emphasis on disciplined reason enhanced the study of science and mathematics. Men wanted to apply careful reason and disciplined learning to nature and the physical world which was assumed created by God who was The Unmoved Mover.

Dawson concluded this book with a section on vernacular literature. Dawson examined Langland's (c 1300s) PIERS THE PLOWMAN. This piece was written during the terrible Hundred Years War (1346-1453), the Black Death, the Shism in the Catholic Church (1377-1414), etc. These events were disasterous to Europe, the Catholic Faith, and culture. Yet, as Dawson stated from excerpts of vernacular literature, politcal instability, disease, economic situations, etc. are transitory while the Catholic Faith and Western Culture are permanent as long as Westen Civilization survives. This is a thoughtful book for anyone interested in the study of history.
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28 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mysteries of european history, October 11, 2002
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This book has given me some clues to european history. I never understood why northern Europe (England, Scandinavia, Germany...) developed so much since XVII century, becomming more prosperous lands than southern countries like Italy or Spain. Dawson explains what happened during the "Dark Years" (500-800 A.D) in Europe, and there we may find an important difference between northern and southern countries. Recomended for deep thinking people on History.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Wealth of Information, June 15, 2010
I found something worthy to note on practically every page of this great book. One of the many important points in the book is the apparent fact that Christianity actually softened the warlike attitudes of the pagans but also that these warlike attitudes also sometimes influenced Christian attitudes as well. Even so, Christian values of mercy and peace did a great deal to lessen the ravages of war. The result is that one gets the sense that God is working slowly but effectively to reform human nature with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Regrettably, modern man, in rejecting God and rejecting Jesus, seems to be taking a step backward toward pagan brutality. You can see this in the cultural acceptance of extreme violence, the evils of Islam and the sex trade, including sexual slavery, which seems to be fueling the pornography trade.

Be that as it may, this is a marvelous book that shows the positive impact of Christianity on many aspects of human history, including the development of education through the university in the Middle Ages and into the Reformation. A very enlightening book packed full of interesting, valuable information.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Seeking European roots, June 3, 2012
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Christopher Dawson traces the historical process of cultural development by which various diverse communities and peoples were transformed into present day Europe. In so doing, he identifies the decisive impact of the Christian religion on the build up of European civilisation. In my opinion, this book is essential reading for those who believe that Christianity is a strong unifying cultural force which provided the roots for present day European civilization as we know it. In my opinion Dawson provides a simple answer to many questions, and particularly for those intellectuals who may ask: Quo vadis Europa? (Europe, whither are you going?)
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5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful classic history of the development of Europe as a ..., September 5, 2014
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Wonderful classic history of the development of Europe as a Christian culture. A balanced look at the various cultures (Roman, Byzantine, Germanic, northern and southern European, etc.) that gave rise to the many faceted European culture dominated by a Christian outlook, filled with philosophers, dissenters, saints, scientists, intellectuals, worldly ambitious men, religious and secular rulers----all regularly at odds with each other, but also building the medieval Europe that led into the Renaissance and the modern age.
Don't miss reading it.
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5.0 out of 5 stars One of the Great Works, December 18, 2013
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This review is from: Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (Kindle Edition)
One of the great 20th century historical works. Dawson is as underrated as Gibbons is overrated. Dawson wrote during a period of cultural and intellectual fragmentation but had the clarity and historical understanding to perceive modern events on their broad socio-historical context.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, September 10, 2013
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Dawson takes some thinking about. It's not an easy read, but well worth it for serious Catholic people. In fact, we read it more than once.
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