Enjoy France, 20 per cent of it

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.

Fontenay cloisters (sorry about the human eyesore)

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.

7 thoughts on “Enjoy France, 20 per cent of it”

  1. Too many birthdays? Yes, alas! a sentiment with which I can agree, my eighty-ninth coming soon. But your ruminations on the history of France and French Christianity prompt many thoughts, not all of them in disagreement, but the issues involved are too deep and wide to be addressed decently in a comment such as this.

    Was any other fate realistically available? I fear not. The essence of Christianity as a political force seems to have been to keep the multitude in humble servitude while the princes (both religious and lay) lived in relative luxury. And it was ever thus; in every form of civilisation. Hence the rise of destructive forces was built into the stonework and the destruction you mourn seems inevitable. Can you argue otherwise?

    1. I think it’s a mistake, a common one, to think that everything that happens was bound to happen. The problem with Christianity was that it indeed became a political force, thereby transgressing beyond its natural remit. For example, the doctrine of turning the other cheek makes sense in the context of universal love, but not as a guide to action when, say, one’s country is attacked. But yes, destruction is a natural human impulse, more so than creation, I suspect. However, indulging the “What if…” strain of historical thought, I can think of many scenarios where most of the great buildings would have remained intact.

    1. Oh that much-maligned subjunctive mood. A friend of mine once asked what I thought I would have been had Christendom survived. His tone suggested I would have been a lowly peasant or some provincial teacher at best. “Why, the Duke of Brunswick, of course,” I said. Why not go subjunctive all the way?

  2. First, I would like to wish you happy birthday! (If that is not too presumptuous of me.)

    Second, nice vacation. My wife asks me (maybe once a year) where I would like to go on vacation – is there anything I want to see? (Is he trying to get rid of me or my money?) We don’t have much money but we do have much family (5 children), so vacations are usually kept to driving our dilapidated van and camping. The children have seen some wondrous natural sites, memories of which I hope they carry with them throughout their lives. I tell my wife that if I had the money there are only two trips I that interest me: touring the cathedrals of France and visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I must add, now that I’ve given it more thought, the invasion beaches of Normandy. Yours sounds like a wonderful drive.

    Third, where would we be if Christendom survived? Not worth contemplating. Father John Zuhlsdorf (whose site I also visit multiple days each week – wdtprs.com) frequently writes that we are alive during such tumultuous times because God wants us here. We should be grateful, and fight to save what we can and even (possibly) turn the tide. A good example is from 12 September, 2019 (enter “this is the time God chose for us” in the search box).

    Stay safe in your travels (he wrote, with just a twinge of envy).

    1. Thank you for your good wishes. But we don’t really see our time in France either as travelling or as vacation. We have a house in Burgundy and spend almost half of our time there. But, to my shame, I haven’t seen the Church of the Holy Sepulchre myself.

  3. Yes, I once read an American travel writer writing about the UK: ‘No country in Europe has such a careless disregard for the glories of its ancient architecture – except, curiously, France.’

    You could have added Troyes to your list (close to your place). There is a plaque, in the magnificent town centre, dedicated to the councillors who resisted the efforts of the 1960s vandals who wanted to ‘develop’ the place by tearing it all down in order to increase the value of their shareholdings in concrete firms.

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