History of the Byzantine Empire. By Charles Diehl. Priceton: Princeton University Press. $2.50.
Medieval Cities. By Henri Pirenne. Priceton: Princeton University Press. $2.50.
It is good to know that this Western civilization of ours is the superior of anything the Orient has produced. No wonder God has been with us as we smashed Peru and Mexico, brought civilization to the humble Hindoo, and light to darkest Africa. Nor have we been content with material achievement: we have justified it. When the Crusaders took Jerusalem, they rode their horses knee-deep in Saracen blood in the Mosque of Omar. They interrupted the slaughter of men, women, and children to pray at the Holy Sepulchre of the Gentle Christ, Prince of Peace; then returned to the slaughter that His will might be done. We, who have not time to pause in the work of civilizing the world, nevertheless delegate our historians to offer prayer and sacrifice and recount our glory. For whatever we Occidentals lack, we have got confidence and the courage of our convictions.
Yet Byzantium was a noble city once. Decadent of course. Heaven knows how she lasted out eleven centuries. But not unimportant, since she conserved classical culture till we Westerners were ready to make use of it. The purpose in it all! Professor Diehl has written a concise history of this resplendent empire, which he as Professor of Byzantine History at The University of Paris, and a foremost authority in this field, should know. What has he given us?
An exciting narrative, by an outsider of keen intelligence, of the development of the thing that produced Saint Sofia and Saint Mark’s, Venice. Saint Mark’s is, of course, where they feed the pigeons. But it is also Byzantine architecture, and breathlessly beautiful.
Professor Diehl points out that there was in Byzantium a confusion between church and state, between religion and life. The empire developed “Caesaropapism.” The great heresies, which strike us as hair-splitting, are after all intelligible if we remember that they were political, as well as religious, quarrels. We may not comprehend a monophy-site; but we ought to be able to understand him in his capacity of Egyptian separatist. The emperor considered himself “emperor and priest;” and when he made a treaty with the Great King of Persia, he promised not to send Christian missionaries into Persian territory. The emperor now healed heresies, now burnt them out: there was no freedom of conscience such as we enjoy. Orthodoxy and nationalism were the same thing. God and the Virgin fought for their empire. Image-worship had to be put down. People actually believed saints’ images would cure them—did cure them. The emperor treated the patriarch of Constantinople like a secretary of state for religion. The fight of the emperors against image-worship—iconoclasm—ended by the emperor’s asserting the supremacy of the state, though conceding important points to the Church. He needed the support of the Church. (These are puzzling statements, since the head of the State was the head of the Church. He must have made concessions to his own Church to obtain his own Church’s support!) Anyway the “futile” religious quarrel was brought to an end. The Church was submissive—to its legitimate head, the emperor, the Basileus faithful in God. No wonder Byzantine art portrayed him with a halo. The empire was “an artificial creation, governing twenty different nationalities, and binding them together with this formula: one master, one faith.” (But we live in an artificial creation, uniting more than twenty religious sects and binding them together with this formula: one State, and as many masters as there are political parties.)
There is confusion in all this. And a key, could we but find it. If church and state were one—as they usually have been in the Orient—why prize them apart and interpret Byzantine history in the light of these artificial disjoined forces?
Yet this is a good book, and a handsome one. It would have been better still had it actually contained the four maps and the illustrations the preface—translated intact— glibly mentions. Particularly the illustrations. One might have found in a good Byzantine mosaic something Professor Diehl has missed.
Henri Pirenne, of the University of Ghent, has perhaps made a greater contribution in less space. The Occident is organized in a state-system that grew out of an alliance between monarch and merchant, and it was the merchant who created the medieval city. Professor Pirenne is right, then, in ascribing largely to the growth of commerce our modern Occidental culture. He demonstrates most happily that it was not the Germanic invasions of the fifth century that broke up large-scale commerce in Europe. It was the later Mohammedan invasion that turned the Mediterranean into a Moslem lake. Thereupon the “economy of exchange” became the “economy of consumption.” But only, note, through compulsion. Love of gain is natural to primitive man. The commercial instinct is normal. The Middle Ages were uncommercial because they could not be commercial. So people worked to eat, not to get rich. Towns declined and fell into the hands of the bishops, who were both temporal and spiritual rulers. Church and State again! The Church, growing up under these agricultural conditions, frowned on trade as usury and taught the doctrine of a “just price,” as against our doctrine of profit. But trade leaked through at Venice and the Flemish ports. The Crusaders, though they failed to Christianize the Holy Land, did Christianize the Mediterranean trade-routes. Luxuries poured in. Agriculture produced a surplus so as to get those luxuries. In brief, farming was industrialized. Labor became “free.” Capital became liquid. The “shrewd and rationalist” merchant overcame the Church’s opposition, formed communes to free cities from episcopal control, and in the field of jurisprudence abandoned compurgation and ordeals in favor of trial by witness. The bishops objected, of course, to this modernization, this materialization. “The confusion of spiritual power and temporal power in their hands … caused every concession to seem to them to be a peril to the Church.” Poor bishops! They have since learned where our society’s authority is vested: emphatically not in religion. The Church came round: indeed the Cistercian Order farmed for profit. The nobility came round: they had borrowed from the merchants. The princes liked it: towns meant increased revenue. Revenue meant irresponsible power. A paid army will not quit like an army of vassals united by moral bonds for specific purposes only. Money made it “possible for a prince to develop a true public administration and to change his suzerainty little by little into sovereignty.” This “Prince” was described by Machiavelli. Later a man named Thomas Hobbes wrote the “Leviathan.”
Professor Pirenne has written a little epic of the middle class. We ought to read it; for, vulgarly speaking, they made us what we are today. Professor Pirenne is all for the middle class. And his case against the agricultural system of medieval Europe is the result of clear, hard-headed thinking.
The merchant was the leaven—or the insidious virus—in medieval life. He smashed domestic economy; he made profits moral; he showed us how to imperialize; he wrecked feudal allegiance; “freed” both serf and soil; and accumulated capital. He created secular education, to help trade; and by breaking the Church’s monopoly of thought, released thought from the authority of morality and placed it under the authority of utility: he laid the foundations of the scientific revolution. He substituted common sense for mysticism; and ensured the victory of secular political sovereignty over religious sovereignty. But he kept religion conveniently near and contributed to it most philanthropically. In brief, the merchant put the Church in its place. It has been there ever since.
The Orient could never have done all this. It always runs aground on religion, which, as we Occidentals have demonstrated, has nothing or very little to do with the case. The Byzantine Empire no longer exists—except perhaps in the imagination of renegades—while New York and London are far more powerful cities than Constantinople.