03 June 2021, The Tablet

Was Christopher Dawson right all along?

Catholic history

Was Christopher Dawson right all along?

Christopher Dawson


Revered in his lifetime, the historian Christopher Dawson has been out of fashion for many decades. However, his warning of growing materialism and authoritarianism if liberal democracy became detached from its Christian roots has proved remarkably prescient

Christopher Dawson was regarded in his lifetime as one of the great Catholic intellectuals of his age: a universal historian whose scope and insight matched that of Spengler, Jaspers, Weber and Toynbee. T.S. Eliot called him the most influential writer in England. He had done more than almost any other English-speaking scholar to rehabilitate the Middle Ages as a formative period for modernity, rather than as an interlude between Rome and Renaissance. Yet today Dawson is at best a B-lister, the sort of author who makes it onto “great books” courses in American liberal arts colleges with a Catholic bent, providing a bit of reserve ammunition for proponents of the “Chesterbelloc” view of the world. He has so far not profited much from the revival of interest in universal history which has favoured the re-reading of figures like Toynbee and Voegelin.

The reasons for this can probably be boiled down to the two most basic characteristics of Dawson: his Englishness and his Catholicism. Born in Hay Castle on the Welsh Borders in 1889, into an upper middle-class Anglo-Catholic family, he lived in Oxford, Yorkshire and Devon. He was received into the Catholic Church on the feast of the Epiphany, 1914, at St Aloysius in Oxford. He taught occasional courses, but worked largely untethered from any academic institution. In 1958, at the height of his fame and prestige, he travelled to America to take up the Chair of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard University, where he remained until 1962, when ill-health forced him to return to England. He died in Budleigh Salterton, Devon, in 1970.

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