On my birthday yesterday, we took a 200-mile drive through the northern half of Burgundy. Auxerre, Flavigny, Semur-en-Auxois, Fontenay Abbey, Noyers – each a poignant reminder of a great civilisation that once was, each a monument to the glory of medieval France.
Or rather to the 20 per cent of medieval France that still survives. The other 80 per cent was swept away by the advent of liberté, egalité, fraternité. The great medievalist Régine Pernoud describes that sustained vandalism so poignantly, she might as well have been writing in blood.
That French revolutionaries were systematically trying to destroy every manifestation of the civilisation they hated is well known. What is seldom mentioned, however, is that the destruction continued apace throughout the nineteenth century, with its Napoleons, Bourbons, and assorted republics.
And even in the previous centuries, the Huguenots were gleefully destroying, in the name of Christian purity, the great testimony to Christian culture. Catholicism disappointed them by falling short of some trumped-up ideal, so it was natural to take their frustration out on statues, paintings and buildings.
So if you gasp, as I do, at the sight of France’s splendours, do a little mental arithmetic and multiply them by five. Then try to imagine what the country looked like before it was vanda… sorry, liberated from the strangulating yoke of Christendom. If you can do so, congratulations. Because I can’t.
Bach inscribed his every work with the words Soli Deo gloria (Glory to God alone). The same motto can be attached to the whole of Western civilisation, otherwise known as Christendom. The subsequent modern civilisation, a sort of Antichristendom, should identify itself with another motto: Soli Deo odium (Hatred to God alone).
For the founding impulse of the new civilisation came from hatred and the urge to destroy. If Christendom became what it is by absorbing and building on the legacy of its Hellenic antecedents, modernity came to life as a violent mutiny against the civilisation it supplanted.
It couldn’t kill Christianity – nothing and no one can do that. But it succeeded in killing Christendom, history’s greatest civilisation. Beheaded champions of it have long since turned to dust, but some beheaded statues are still there, bearing witness to an orgy of vandalism.
And there sits the sublime Fontenay Abbey, turned into a museum, but mercifully not razed like Cluny, the intellectual and cultural centre of medieval Europe. At the time it was demolished, just a handful of monks lived there. But for the victorious modernity, even a handful were too many.
A bittersweet experience, driving through France is. Delight and awe, mixed with mournful sadness – with the latter deepened by the realisation that perhaps one has had too many birthdays.