Patristics and Europe in 1951

Closed for business. Snack bar on Avenue Robert Schuman. Photograph by me.

“… since we are gathered here on the soil of Great Britain, how could we not call to mind a model or antitype of the labour we’re now doing: the work completed in the ‘dark ages’ by the scotti monasteries, heirs of the first rush out of Ireland; by the monasteries and episcopal schools of the Anglo-Saxons … where the beginnings of the Carolingian Renaissance, and so our civilisation today, were sketched out.” – Conclusion to Henri Marrou’s address to the first Oxford Patristics Conference (1951)

This quote is a good example of the ways in which people came to see the connections between the end of the Roman Empire and Europe after 1945. I’ve spent some time in the Archives nationales d’Outre-Mer trying to make more sense of these connections. As I walked to and from the archives I also thought about how memories of the past shape our world today.

The building containing these archives stands on the outskirts of Aix-en-Provence at the end of Avenue Robert Schuman. Schuman was a key figure in the early negotiations on European integration after the Second World War. Over the past week, as the consequences of Brexit begin to play out, this junction between the colonial archive and Schuman’s avenue has come to seem a physical monument to the intersection between memories of empire and the European present.

Robert Schuman was instrumental in the founding of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) which would grow into the European Union. The Schuman Declaration was composed in May 1950 and sketched out the raison d’etre for the ECSC before it was established by the Treaty of Paris in 1951. The Declaration says that an economic community is essential if Europe is not to slide into another war:

“World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it.

The contribution which an organized and living Europe can bring to civilization is indispensable to the maintenance of peaceful relations. In taking upon herself for more than 20 years the role of champion of a united Europe, France has always had as her essential aim the service of peace. A united Europe was not achieved and we had war.” – Opening lines of the Schuman Declaration.

The Declaration urges Europe to turn away from the calamitous recent past and embrace a solidarity emerging from a common ‘civilisation’.

While reading the Schuman Declaration this week, I was struck by the similarity in tone to Henri Marrou’s address to the inaugural Oxford Patristics Conference, which also took place in 1951. In this speech he evokes the recent past as a sort-of technological anti-human barbarism that continues to threaten civilisation. Responding to this context, he offers a vision of Patristics as an international collaboration between scholars that recovers human civilisation and rejects barbarism. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the historiography of Late Antique and Early Medieval Europe was shaped by wider anxieties around national prestige and the (racial, legal, religious) origins of Europe. Marrou’s speech effaces this historiography, focusing instead on a shared history of scholarship stretching back in an unbroken (if sometimes tenuous) line to the Fathers. Like the Schuman Declaration, it’s a supra-national vision of unity.

The section of Marrou’s words quoted above is from the closing lines of this address. Perhaps the focus on Great Britain allows him to conjure the distant past without assigning a particular precedence to either France or Germany, thereby gliding over the competing claims to precedence present in the historiography. The Schuman Declaration similarly argues that European economic unification would require “the elimination of the age-old opposition of France and Germany.” Both the Schuman Declaration and Marrou’s speech (indeed, the Oxford Conference as a whole) are peace projects, for both are attempts to give purpose to post-War Europe and to open up a future of co-existence through shared “creative effort”.

The Schuman Declaration, having outlined hopes for world peace, discusses the practicalities of European union. Central to this union are the overseas territories of the European powers. “With increased resources,” it says, “Europe will be able to pursue the achievement of one of its essential tasks, namely, the development of the African continent.” Africa is the only other continent mentioned in this text. As an article by Peo Hansen and Stefan Jonsson shows, the preservation of European power in Africa, together with continued access to the labour and raw materials of that continent, played a key role in the economic unification of Europe. As decolonisation unrolled across Africa, the economic union of European powers granted them the strength to reinforce their existing economic relationships with newly decolonised territories. Indeed, Africa was firmly at the centre of the European project, being both the exception against which Europe defined itself and the supreme example of the ‘civilising’ effects of European humanism.

It is precisely this humanism which Marrou identifies as the heritage of the Fathers. Central to this patrimony is the figure of Augustine “who was not only a great saint, a great theologian, but also a great writer –  a great writer from Antiquity – who used an instrument of extraordinary perfection with mastery, this art of oratory which had granted him a tradition stretching back to Gorgias.” The humanist heritage of post-War Patristics,  notes Marrou, was handed to us from the Cappadocians, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine. For Marrou, Augustine is the ideal of the humanist tradition of the Church Fathers refounded in that 1951 address. This speech presents one community of scholarship incorporating Oxford, Paris, Rome, and Hippo; Great Britain, France, Italy and Algeria. What is not discussed in this 1951 address is the way that European humanism played out in the then-unfolding conflict in Indochina, or about the connections between the French colonial administration in Algeria and academic study of Augustine. Such things, presumably, were considered beyond the scope of Patristics, but they are important if we want to think about Europe, its humanist past and a humane future.

Recent events in Britain and Europe are a reminder of the importance of the colonial past and its continuing presence. The EU’s claim to be a peace-building project was a recurring theme in the recent referendum about Britain’s membership of the EU. As Hansen and Jonsson point out, uncritically presenting the EU as a peace project is a seductive complacency. This claim invites us to imagine intra-European conflict as safely confined to the past and therefore not a threat to the present. By presenting European union as the guarantor of peace it also ignores the continuing implication of the EU in  (neo)colonial violence. More immediately, the refusal to link the European project to colonialism contributes to what Akwugo Emejulu has termed the whiteness of Brexit, in which post-Brexit racism appears as if from no-where and the long history of race and colonialism in Britain (and the EU) is ignored. Much referendum campaigning was focussed on migration, while the continuing rise of the far right suggests that migration will be an element of the fallout of the referendum across Europe. Acknowledging the colonial structures that continue to shape Europe would help politicians to address the postcolonial present. Only then will there be the socially just, cosmopolitan Europe that many of its supporters want.

In his address to the Oxford Patristics conference in 1951 Marrou pointed out that the Fathers were men of their time who drew on their heritage to articulate a new way of acting in the world. So, he says, should those gathered before him remember that the study of these Fathers offers a way to rescue European society from an inhuman catastrophe. Marrou’s address is not born of atavism  (although he wasn’t averse to that), but is rather a call to refound Patristics as a discipline engaged with the post-War crisis. 65 years after the first Oxford Conference, people working on the history of early Christianity might similarly draw on this heritage to engage with the twenty-first century.

One of the ways in which this can be done is by acknowledging the colonial heritage of the discipline and the continuing ways that the colonial past makes itself felt in contemporary scholarship. As Gurminder K. Bhambra puts it, by “acknowledging historical connections, we make the contemporary issues we face shared ones, providing ways for more adequate and more inclusive ways of addressing them.” A study of early Christianity conscious of the web of the colonial past that continues to animate the present – particularly the ways in which Europe imagines itself as the inheritor of a humanist tradition –  would sit squarely in the tradition of Patristic scholarship as it was outlined by Marrou in 1951.


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