The territorial extent of the recently enlarged European Union (EU) is astonishingly similar to that of medieval Catholic Christendom. Apart from one or two obvious exceptions, such as Greece (EU but never Catholic) and Switzerland (Catholic in the Middle Ages but not EU), the geography of the one is the geography of the other. The Catholic West Slavs and Hungarians are in, the Orthodox East Slavs are out. France, Germany, and northern Italy form a preponderant core, surrounded by a zone of sometimes less fully integrated peripheries like Britain and Scandinavia. Charlemagne would have recognized this geography, centered as it is on his old stamping grounds around Brussels and Strasbourg.
Is this coincidence anything other than coincidence? Do the existence of a territorial unit in the late Middle Ages that included Estonia but excluded Russia, included Slovenia but excluded Serbia, included Sicily and Spain but excluded Muslim North Africa, and the existence of a territorial unit today that draws its lines of exclusion at precisely the same points have real historical significance? Is the Catholic Christendom of the Middle Ages in any sense a precursor of the Europe of today?
The great French medievalist Jacques Le Goff answers with an emphatic “yes.” Having chosen to write a book called The Birth of Europe for his own series “The Making of Europe,” he would be unlikely to reply otherwise (there are indeed few historians who choose to stress the irrelevance of the period they study to the modern world). Le Goff is not reticent: “This book is directly relevant to the present European situation…it sets out to illustrate the thesis that it was in the Middle Ages that Europe first appeared and took shape….”
For a continent to “appear and take shape” is perhaps worth comment. Most of the continents of the world have a self-evident quality: North and South America, Africa, Australasia—all are large landmasses surrounded or virtually surrounded by salt water. The odd ones out are Europe and Asia. If one were to apply the same criterion to define a continent that applies in the other cases, there would be no Europe or Asia, simply the continent called Eurasia, encompassing the vast plains, valleys, and mountains between Korea and La Coruña. As the Mongols demonstrated very memorably in the thirteenth century, there are no insuperable barriers to prevent a horseman from riding from China to Poland. “Europe” and “Asia” are obviously not natural facts but cultural constructions, invented, indeed, as a pair of contrasting polarities.
It was the Greeks of the fifth century BC who needed and created this duality. Facing invasion by their huge eastern neighbor, the Persian Empire, ancient Greek intellectuals elaborated the opposition between Europeans, meaning “us,” and Asiatics, meaning “them.” Herodotus, “the father of history,” makes it clear in the opening words of his work that this “clash of civilizations” is his theme, while Aristotle, distinguishing the spirited European from the clever but servile Asiatic, could serve as a prologue to any history …