Romanticism is a much-used word; because of its very wide-spread usage, it has become as hard to define as Catholicism in certain dioceses. Depending upon whom you read or speak to, it might appear variously as a personality diagnosis, an artistic movement, a penchant for love affairs, or a sheer pejorative for unrealistic thought or views. What is it really? Whence does it come?
That indefatigable source, the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, carries no general definition of “Romanticism,” although references to it abound in that opus. The online “Wikipedia” tells us that “In a general sense, ‘Romanticism’ covers a group of related artistic, political, philosophical and social trends arising out of the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Europe. But a precise characterization and a specific description of Romanticism have been objects of intellectual history and literary history for all of the twentieth century without any great measure of consensus emerging. Arthur Lovejoy attempted to demonstrate the difficulty of this problem in his seminal article "On The Discrimination of Romanticisms" in his Essays in the History of Ideas (1948): “some scholars see romanticism as completely continuous with the present, some see it as the inaugural moment of modernity, some see it as the beginning of a tradition of resistance to the Enlightenment, and still others date it firmly in the direct aftermath of the French Revolution.”
Very confusing, to be sure. The word “Romance” itself comes from the post-Latin dialects in which such Medieval works as the Gesta Romanorum, the Chansons de Geste, and the earlier versions of the Arthurian stories were written. After a period of neglect starting with the Reformation (and downright ridicule in the 18th century), these tales were prized by the generation of European writers, artists, and composers who came to maturity in the wake of the French Revolution. Featuring such heroes as Charlemagne and Arthur, and dealing with such topics as the Holy Grail, such stories were an enormous departure from the rationalistic standpoint of the Enlightenment.
Of course, underneath the radar of such folk as Voltaire were the rumblings of Gothicism and Ossianism in the British Isles, and the Sturm und Drang in Germany. For all that the Enlightened proclaimed the reorganisation of society according to “rational” principles, and the altering or overthrow of existing altars and thrones (such as Austria’s Joseph II, Prussia’s Frederick II, and Russia’s Catherine II might want to banish superstition from their own religious establishments, but fiercely resisted any challenge to their own power), something was brewing under the surface.
While to-day we tend to think of the Enlightenment purely in terms of its role as a precursor to the French Revolution, it is important to remember its role in informing the policies of such “Enlightened Despots” as the three above-named, Spain’s (and Naples’) Charles III, Portugal’s Joseph (admittedly manipulated by “his” minister, Pombal), and France’s Louis XV (similarly “guided” by Choiseul). Abolition of local liberties and privileges going back to the Middle Ages, assaults on the guild system, and tightening of censorship were all the order of the day. Although designed to make the local Sovereign ever more master of his dominions, these policies had, ironically, the effect of loosening the respect in which the subjects had held their Monarchs. In Latin America and Belgium in particular, this kind of centralisation directly set the stage for revolution.
As with the State, so did the Enlightenment have its way with the Church. Its first great victory, of course, was the abolition of the Jesuits (although, ironically, non-Catholic “Greats” Catherine and Frederick refused publication of the Bull in their countries). The pre-existing Gallicanism, joined by newly-coined movements like Febronianism and Josephinism, wanted to reduce the Catholic Church in each European Kingdom to a department of state, as were the various established Protestant churches in their countries, or the Orthodox Church in Russia. Even Bishops got into the act, such as the Fathers of the Synod of Pistoia in Tuscany, and Elector-Archbishop Klemens Wenceslas of Cologne. All of these wished to reduce the Papacy to the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury in modern Anglicanism.
Aufklärung Catholicism, whether on the part of royals, nobles, or high ecclesiastics was also concerned much with lifting of civil disabilities from Jews and Protestants, as well as extending the role of the vernacular in the liturgy --- both measures much resisted by the rank and file. In the purely religious realm, would-be reformers saw the then-manner of offering the liturgy as spiritless and dead, with too little emphasis on teaching the faithful. It was during this period that Gregorian chant began to be banished from the life of most of the Church in favour of more “popular” hymnody --- the introduction of which caused riots in many places. In France, such alterations had been advocated by the remnants of the Jansenist party. Dom Guéranger, in his Institutions liturgiques, (vol. II, pp. 202f.) cites an example, as conducted by M. l’Abbé Jacques Jobs, the Curé of Asnières:
Arriving at the foot of the altar he said the opening prayers, and the people answered in a loud voice. He next went to a chair on the epistle side of the sanctuary. Here he intoned the Gloria and Credo, without, however, reciting either of them through; nor did he say the Epistle or Gospel. He only said the Collect. He did not recite anything that the choir chanted. . . . They recited the formula aloud to show that their offering was being made in the name of the people. The entire Canon, as might be expected, was likewise recited aloud. The celebrant let the choir say the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei. . . . The communion of the people was not preceded by that of any of the ordained priests, as was the current custom. The subdeacon, although clothed in the tunic, communicated with the laity. Nevertheless the church of Asnières did not think it proper yet to use the vernacular in the liturgy. All that was done was that before vespers a sort of deaconess [sic-une espèce de diaconesse] publicly read the gospel of the day in French.
One is reminded of the comment by Louis XVI, who, when reproached by a friend for appointing a notorious evil-liver to a diocese, replied “What am I to do? At least this one believes in the Trinity!” Indeed, developments in liturgy echo those in theology, where various divines attempted to remove the miraculous from the life of the Church, and focus on ethics, education, and material prosperity.
In architecture, Baroque, Rococco, and surviving Gothic were to be banished in favour of the Neo-Classical --- although it can be beautiful, its relative lack of ornamentation was more in keeping with the mindset of the Enlightenment. History too was re-examined by “Catholic” scholars under the influence, and the deeds of Chivalry, the Crusades, and the Inquisition dismissed as barbarous. Shrines, pilgrimages, and sacraments were deemed “superstitious” by some, while others questioned monastic vows and clerical celibacy.
At the same time, it must be remembered that a great many of the “Enlightenment Catholics” really believed that they were truly helping the Church. Charles III of Spain, who most cruelly persecuted the Jesuits, also bound all of his civil servants to take an oath to defend the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception to the death, and ordered and subsidised the work of Bl. Junipero Serra in California.
So things stood when the French Revolution brought down the whole weakened structure like a house of cards. Gone were the Enlightened Despots. But when the dust settled, a figure fit to stand by any of them (and both more successful and through-going than they were) arose: Napoleon Bonaparte.
Despite his coming to power invoking the Revolution, the programme of the soi-disant Emperor of the French was purely that of the Enlightenment. From his reorganised map of Europe, to the centralising Code Napoleon, to his religious policy culminating in the concordat with Pius VII, Napoleon’s work incarnated that of Joseph II and the rest.
Historically, Romanticism was born in the hearts and minds of the resistance to Napoleon --- even though many Romantics initially embraced him as a hero figure, akin to Charlemagne. His attempt to do for Europe what his predecessors tried to do to each of their countries aroused the fires of nationalism in their breast --- German, Italian, English --- and even French. The brutality of Napoleon’s police and censors drove “subversive” writers deep within their souls; his total control of Europe led minds to wander elsewhere, beyond the Continent.
Here we find the origins of the main themes of Romanticism, although, as we noticed, the roots of the phenomenon were already present. A longing for the Medieval past, and for the contemporary exotic --- whether Asia or the wilds of America; an exaltation of the needs of the individual (and by extension, the self) over the wishes of the community; preference for folklore over the sort of learning perceived to have brought the Enlightenment, and of intuition over reason, custom over legislation; a fascination with intense feeling --- including horror and humour --- over the mundane: these were the hallmarks of the Romantic revolt, in literature, art, and music, in politics, and most certainly in religion.
Perhaps the first inkling of the effect the new movement would have in the latter sphere came with the publication in 1799 of an essay by the Romantic writer, Friederich von Hardenberg (better known as Novalis), Christendom or Europe? Its opening paragraph was a battle cry, a challenge thrown down to everything that had happened to Europe since the Reformation:
There once were beautiful, splendid times when Europe was a Christian land, when one Christendom dwelt in this continent, shaped by human hand; one great common interest bound together the most distant provinces of this broad religious empire. Although he did not have extensive secular possessions, one supreme ruler guided and united the great political powers. A numerous guild which everyone could join ranked immediately below the ruler and carried out his wishes, eagerly striving to secure his beneficent might. Each member of this society was honoured on all sides, and whenever the common people sought from him consolation or help, protection or advice, being glad in exchange to provide richly for his diverse needs, each also found protection, esteem, and a hearing from the more mighty ones, while all cared for these chosen men, who were armed with wondrous powers like children of heaven, and whose presence and favour spread many blessings. Childlike trust bound people to their pronouncements. How cheerfully each could accomplish his earthly tasks, since by virtue of these holy people a safe future was prepared for him, and every false step was forgiven by them, and every discoloured mark in his life wiped away and made clear. They were the experienced helmsmen on the great unknown sea, under whose protection all storms could be made light of, and one could be truly confident of a safe arrival and landing on a shore that was truly a fatherland.
While this was surely a rosy, not to say Romantic, picture of the Middle Ages, it was not without truth entirely --- and bore enough to seem a heavenly alternative to the chaos and disbelief engulfing the world in which Novalis and his contemporaries toiled. Indeed, it was the very supernaturalism that repelled so many Enlightenment Catholics, which attracted Novalis, and many of his contemporaries, as well as the resistance that Catholics were offering the Revolution and later Bonaparte in such places as the Vendee, Tyrol, and the South and East of Italy. The fact that the Faith of these fighters was grounded in the miraculous and the Sacramental, rather than in intellectual abstractions, was not lost on the nascent Romantics.
Four years after Novalis’ opus (and one after his death), France itself produced an elaboration of the same theme in François Rene, Vicomte de Chateaubriand’s Genie du Christianisme. This “Genius of Christianity” had an enormous effect on French public opinion. Single-handedly resurrecting respect for the Middle Ages, Chateaubriand showed his readers that Catholicism was not only true and good, but beautiful. As with Romanticism itself, the book seemed misty and ethereal at times, but nevertheless provided real-world results: specifically, orienting French public opinion favourably toward the prospect of coming to an accommodation with the Holy See.
The Romantic Revolt started gathering steam at that time, picking up an unusual group of adherents along the way --- even reaching the man who, apart from Napoleon, was arguably the most powerful ruler in Europe: Tsar Alexander I. All sorts of writers began pouring forth ever increasing attacks on Bonaparte, and ever stronger defences of altar and throne on the other. Such men as Joseph de Maistre and Louis de Bonald in France (both of whom began writing in the late 1790s), Friederich von Schlegel, and Johann Joseph Görres (who left the ranks of the Left and had become a Romantic by 1802), gained an ever-increasing audience --- both for themselves and the Church. Even in Protestant Britain, Sir Walter Scott inspired interest in the Catholic past, with his tales of Knights and Jacobites.
The fall of Napoleon led to a tidal wave of Romanticism. It is not too much to say that its influence was key in Pius VII’s regaining of the Papal States; certainly Tsar Alexander’s “Holy Alliance” owed much to this climate of opinion as well. In the immediate aftermath of the Restoration, the Romantics rode high, doing their best not to restore the mere ancienne regime, but the Middle Ages --- most specifically in terms of the relationship between Church and State.
To be sure, a sort of leftwing Romanticism would develop as well, taking much of its fuel from the movement’s concern with the individual. But most of these folk eventually took the road they travelled because the restored governments under which they lived were not Romantic or Medieval enough, in essence. Of such a type were Lammenais, Victor Hugo, and Lamartine, all of whom began political life as fanatical supporters of the Bourbon monarchy of France.
In Italy, political Romatic Conservatism split into two irreconcilable parts: the particularist defenders of the small states of the peninsula, such as Naples’ Principe di Canosa, the Papal States’ Monaldo Leopardi, and Sardinia’s Clemente Solaro della Margherita; and the Neo-Guelphs, like Gioberti and Cesare Balbo, who wanted to see Italy united under the Pope. Of their number, for a time, was Bl. Pius IX.
Politically, Conservative Romanticism was a failure, buried under the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, and the unifications of Italy and Germany. What emerged was a Europe where most governments (save, partially, Austria-Hungary) espoused the principles of the Enlightenment as filtered through Napoleon, Cavour, and Bismarck. At the hands of such regimes, the Church was suffer much. They would, of course, perform a suicide pact from 1914 to 1918. Their leadership would then be replaced by figures who were at least Despots, if not Enlightened --- we enjoy the aftermath of their rule to-day, when Hitler’s view of humanity as mere economic cogs without souls seems to be dominant in governments of whatever ideological hue.
In the arts and society, however, Romanticism fared much better. In England, Kenelm Digby published the first edition of The Broadstone of Honour in 1822. This work was to have an enormous effect in Britain, akin to that of Chateaubriand in France. It directly fuelled Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, and the whole of the 19th century Arthurian Revival, itself contributing to such things as Pre-Raphaelitism, the Arts and Crafts Movement and Art Nouveau. Similar Romantic offshoots had a similar affect in Iberia, France, Germany, and Austria. In Russia, the Slavophile Movement arose, and in Eastern Europe, under Romantic influence, long-suppressed nationalities from Poland and Ukraine to Greece had cultural revivals.
Even in America, Romanticism produced such disparate figures as Washington Irving, Fitz-Greene Halleck, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe. Mixing European and American themes, these authors were instrumental in the foundation of American literature. Each of them, in their way, exposed their audiences to bits of Catholicism, despite none of them (save possibly Halleck) having actually converted. Hawthorne’s daughter Rose, of course, did convert and went on to become foundress of the Hawthorne Dominicans and a candidate for sainthood.
It was precisely in this religious sphere, however, that Romanticism was to win its greatest successes. In Vienna, such men of the movement as Schlegel were the basis of the circle around St. Clement Mary Hofbauer, and it is to Romantic writer Clemens Brentano that we owe the writings of Bl. Anne Katherine Emmerich. Although the Bourbon regime fell in 1830, Romanticism fuelled the efforts of such as Dom Prosper Gueranger, Fr. Lacordaire (restorer of the Dominicans), Montalambert, and on and on. In Britain, both Oxford Movement and the Gothic wing of the Catholic Revival (a la Pugin) owed much to Digby and Sir Walter Scott. Germany saw its own Romantic artistic offshoot, the Nazarenes, morph with the aid of local disciples of Dom Gueranger into that great citadel of Christian art, the Abbey of Beuron.
In fact, the entirety of the international Catholic Revival of the 19th century, with its proliferation of guilds aiming at sanctifying every element of society, and of Catholic political parties to do the same for government; the revival of Latin Liturgy, Gregorian Chant, Gothic architecture, religious orders, explosion of missionary activity, monasteries, pilgrimages, and proliferation of devotions; and with its expansion of Catholic scholarship and historical rehabilitation of Chivalry, the Crusades, and the Inquisition (much inspired, to be sure, by the above-noted military struggles of Catholics during the Counter-Revolutionary struggles in Europe from 1789 to 1815), were all firmly based in Romanticism. It was, in fact, a Romantic view of the Crusades that inspired Catholics to take up arms for the Faith in what was perhaps the last declared Crusade, the defence of the Papal States from 1860 to 1870, one of the noblest oblations of blood ever offered up.
Some of this influence lasted well into the 20th century. To mention only a single solitary example, the noted Oxford literary circle of the Inklings --- most famously J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams, were certainly Romantics; there is an example which could be multiplied many times over.
It may well be argued that the Middle Ages to which the Romantics looked for inspiration was a fairy-land that never existed. Perhaps; but it must be remembered that the Medievals themselves, unlike their descendants, did not look to their own time and place for perfection. Rather, the best of them looked to Heaven, to the “Land of the Living,” as their true home, from which they were exiles in this world of shadows and pain. Rather than pretend that they could find true happiness here, they looked at creation as at once concealing and symbolising greater and ultimately indescribable realities. It was to those that the Medievals looked, and to them that they aspired. This aspiration, in turn, was what the best of the Romantics built their hopes and works upon.
We live in a time ourselves when, until the election of Benedict XVI, the religious project of the Aufklärung seems just about accomplished. The Liturgical Revival launched by Dom Gueranger went in precisely the direction he abominated; the “rationalisation” of theology proceeded apace. All of the elements of our Church’s history hated by the Enlightened are to-day almost universally abominated; what they called superstition and barbarism, many of our most influential scholars still call likewise. Many Bishops’ Conferences (and individual bishops) remain Febronian to the core, and happily subscribe to the political views of their local rulership rather than to those of the Holy See. Such prelates resistance to reforms emanating from Rome are typified by the reception greeting the motu proprio Summarum Pontificum.
In many ways, Pope Benedict seems a figure of Romanticism, from his tastes in literature and music to his view of the place of the Church in the World. Not only his liberation of the Tridentine Mass, but his pushing through with an accurate translation of the Novus Ordo and his attempt to bring Anglo-Catholicism (itself a product of the Romantic era if ever there was one) into the Church, and his rapprochement with the (especially Russian) Orthodox underscore this. Such practical Romanticism as may be found in the works of advocates of the Benedictine Reform like Aidan Nichols’ Christendom Awake and The Realm deserve space next to Novalis, Chateaubriand, Gueranger, Digby, and the rest.
Nevertheless, if the post-Vatican Enlightenment did indeed bring a new dawn to the Church, increase the fervour of the Faithful, and advance the Christianisation of Society and the World, then the hopes of the Enlightened (despots or otherwise) of the 18th century and their latter day disciples have been fulfilled. What can the honest man do save agree with them, and follow in their train? But if not, we need to look with new eyes once again at the “evening isles fantastical” of the Romantics and their descendants, as our Pope seems to have done. The struggle between the two schools boils down to one of vision: ought Catholics to strive for the Heavens, or be content with the Earth? One could offer a theological answer, of course; but this writer would submit that history offers the ultimate test first enunciated by Christ Himself: “By their fruits you shall know them.” A bit too practical and unromantic, perhaps, but that is a luxury we can concede Him.