The Achievement of Christopher Dawson

Author: Fr. David Knowles


Fr. David Knowles, Cambridge Professor of Medieval History, wrote these words about Christopher Dawson in an obituary at the time of the latter's death on May 25, 1970:

"The death of Christopher Dawson, in his 81st year, will probably pass unheeded by many of those who are not forty years old. He had left England for America twelve years ago--and what twelve years those have been!--and for some years before he went and since his return he had been, as it were, incommunicado, partly through choice, but more on account of weak health. But to those who were young, or not so old, in the late 1920s and the 1930s he will always remain as a master, indeed as a prophet. His vast learning, his faultless scholarship, were at the service of a mind that did not fear to take the broadest view of history and religion, yet which never turned history into meta-history, and never imposed thought-patterns upon the story of the living past.

His origins and background seemed "improbable" enough to those who knew him only in middle life. The slight figure and gentle voice gave one the fear that a gust of wind might sweep him out of sight, and his frail, if striking, appearance, his weak health, and his retiring, even shy disposition kept him away from any form of display or , and indeed sometimes kept at a distance those whom he would probably have wished to welcome. In fact, he was the son of a soldier, Lieut. Colonel H.P. Dawson, who was also the squire of Hartlington Hall, near Skipton. He was educated at Winchester, a school which has produced more "improbable" alumni than most, and at Trinity College, Oxford. It was there that his boyhood friendship with Mr. E.I. Watkin matured into a kinship of mind. He was received into the Church in 1914, a few years before Ronald Knox, and for the rest of his life was to be, not precisely a Church historian or a theologian, but a cultural historian of the people of God, who held that religion, and not economics, was the mainspring of man's life.

Indeed, his whole corpus of writings might have been collected as an Augustinian today. Just as Augustine saw the Christians Church sheltered in the Roman Empire and making its own the thought of Greece, so Dawson saw the Church of yesterday and today as the inheritor of all that was best in earlier civilizations, and as the transmitter of the legacy of Israel and Greece and Rome to the new Europe that took the place of the classical world.

His first major work, , was hailed by Dean Inge as a masterpiece of wide and impartial learning, and the next book, , drew the attention of scholars and students to the epoch between Constantine and Gregory VII that is far more familiar to historians now than it was in 1930. In a sense he never surpassed those two books; the steady stream that followed, , , , , , , , , and (his last work), are all variations of the same great theme. For some twenty years his voice was heard in many places, and he adorned whatever he touched. His essay on Augustine's City of God in (1930), and that on Langland in (1933) are small masterpieces that remain as valuable now as when they were written, and the same can be said of his collection of (1954)....He was elected to the British Academy in 1943, and he livered the Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh in 1947-8, but though he lived for a time at Boars Hill he never returned to a teaching post in his own university, which he would have greatly graced. In 1958 he was chosen to be the first holder of the chair Roman Catholic Studies in Harvard University, from which he retired in 1962.

He lived long enough to see a wide swing away from the intellectual pattern that he loved. Pre-eminently a historian of culture, he saw each phase of cultural history not as one valid and authentic only for its representatives, but as a reflection of one and the same human spirit in its aspirations and achievements, all of which had a legacy and lesson for their successors and for ourselves. He lived to see his life-line weakened by the eclipse of the classical tradition and the emergence of an existentialist and relativist cast of thought. The disappearance of the Latin liturgy and the Gregorian chant, and the virtual loss to Catholic worship of so many of the prayers and hymns that were the creation, not of a maligned Tridentine piety, but of centuries of Christian Europe, struck at much that he had presented as a precious legacy held on trust. From (London) June 6, 1970

This article was taken from "The Dawson Newsletter," Spring 1994, P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702, $8.00 per year.