What is Europe? The answer to this question is notoriously complicated, which in itself sets Europe apart from all the other continents. As soon as Greek geographers had distinguished the three landmasses to the North-East, the South and the North-West, from the biggest to the smallest, they singularised the latter by associating it with Zeus in naming it after the Phoenician princess, Europe, whom the bull-like god had abducted and seduced. Of that union, the mythical king Minos of Crete was the best-known offspring, and with it the suggestion of Europe as a cultural entity was born.
Yet European culture would remain shadowy until the world in which that association had originated ended. Indeed, Ancient Greece and Rome were above all Mediterranean civilisations, centred on the cities. For Europe to return to the fore, the most famous city of the oecumene (the known world) had itself to become an idea that religious and secular leaders would claim for legitimising their power. With Rome no longer in Rome, chronicles started referring to the Carolingian Empire as Europe.
It is interesting, however, that the first evidence for this association can be found in a Christian chronicle shortly after the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula and that it refers to the Battle of Poitiers (732) at which Charles Martel defeated Muslim forces. That decisive and much-advertised victory greatly contributed to asserting the legitimacy of the claims of the Carolingian dynasty to the Frankish throne.
Thus began the long and rather unsettled association between European culture and Latin Christianity. It survived the demise of Christendom (as its first embodiment had become known) following the Renaissance of classical culture, the Reformation of Latin Christianity and the colonisation of the world by people who increasingly defined themselves as Europeans in opposition to others.
To this day, Europe is Latin. It refers to a framework of ideas and institutions that enabled, and has ever since encapsulated, the translation of its identity from the world of the Mediterranean polis to a plurality of communities and polities drawing some legitimacy from their ‘Roman’ origin. The European Union is only the most commonly associated with that culture, but every other European polity may be tied to it too, and this is, of course, also true of associations, from the most local to global players that originated in the West like the Catholic Church and the United Nations. Indeed, Latin culture as a set of ideas and institutions of the kind that has just been defined may help us understand the complexity of the European Union and the reason why it is so commonly conflated with Europe.
As two great medievalists, Henri Pirenne and Marc Bloch, realised amidst the consequences of World War I and the turbulences of the Interwar period, Europe had come into existence through the rise of new forms of interpersonal bonds that developed within the limits of a shared political and cultural frame of reference ‘among those who dwelt between the Tyrrhenian, the Adriatic, the Elbe, and the Atlantic Ocean’. 1 While European civilisation expanded to encompass most of the continent until it eventually ‘covered the face of the earth’, its ‘homeland’, as Bloch had it, remained characterised by a variety of horizontal and vertical bonds as well as by ascending and descending ideals of political and cultural organisation.
It still is. As early as 1928, Bloch drew the outlines of a comparative history of European societies based on Pirenne’s reflections on both comparison and Europe in front of his fellow historians at the 6th International Congress of Historical Sciences at Oslo. There, in the capital town of newly independent Norway, the French foreign secretary, Aristide Briand, and his German counterpart, Gustav Stresemann, had jointly been awarded the Nobel Prize for Franco-German reconciliation only two years earlier.
In September 1929, one year after Bloch’s address and only within a few weeks of Stresemann’s death and Black Thursday, Briand developed the ideas of a form of European union in front of the League of Nations at Geneva in terms that encapsulate many of the long-term characteristics of European politics and culture:
I believe that among peoples who are geographically close as those of Europe are, there should exist a sort of federal link. These people must have the opportunity at any moment to make contact with each other, discuss their common interests, take joint decisions, and establish bonds of solidarity which, when the time comes, will enable them to face any grave situations that may arise.
It is these bonds I should like to try to forge. Obviously, such an association will act first and foremost in the economic field, where matters are most urgent. But I am also sure that the federal link can be beneficial in political and social affairs, without affecting the sovereignty of any of the nations that might belong to such an association. 2
In the end, the European unification process would, for all the bureaucratic blue-print which went into it, hardly have had such profound and lasting influence if it was not deeply rooted in the European fabric. As British citizens are asked to assess the relationship of their country to the European Union, honesty commands that it be remembered that their decision is indeed about Europe, and that a disentanglement from it is not on the ballot paper. Yet not geography is at stake here, and nor is tradition.
It’s the culture, stupid!
Martial Staub is Professor of Medieval History at the University of Sheffield. He has recently co-edited (with Gert Melville) Brill’s Encyclopaedia of the Middle Ages, to be published later this year.
Image: Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Europe, Detail of the fresco Apollo and the Continents, Ceiling of the Stairwell, Residenz of the Prince-Bishop, Würzburg, Germany, 1752/3 [Wikicommons].