Europe is one of the 7 continents in the world and is first and foremost a geographical entity. The understanding of Europe as a cultural area emerged as a product of the Renaissance in the 15th century A.D when Europe made its transition from the medieval period to the modern era. The time between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance period is denoted today as the ‘Middle Ages’ considered to be a Dark Age characterized by barbarism, violence and lack of progress in education and other aspects of culture. It was through the Middle Ages that Europe’s transition
from feudalism to modernity and high culture took place.
The notion of a cohesive European culture is a recent conception, concocted only towards the middle of the first half of the 20th century. While it is true that Europe is a continent with shared experiences and history, it has a diverse and vibrant culture. The European history has been characterized by different intellectual currents, movement and several major revolutions which have moulded Europe into the Europe that we see today as well as had an impact on other cultures as well. The majority of the ‘isms’ that exist today have their origins in Europe- Romanticism, Liberalism, Humanism, Classicism, Secularism and few others.
Europe has usually been associated with Christianity which has been misconceived to have its origins in Europe due to its long antecedent history. The Papacy, Crusades and the German Reformation/Protestant Revolution usually comes to mind when Christianity is mentioned. The repercussions of the German Reformation are widespread which today we can see in the existence of many denominations and factions that characterize world Christianity.
The high culture in Europe emerged during the 15th century through the start of the Italian
Renaissance where artists, writers and philosophers looked back to the classical Greek and Roman antiquity for inspiration. The Renaissance art saw the experimentation of naturalism in painting, sculpture and architecture. Philosophies on statecraft like Machiavelli’s realpolitik shaped the politics of Europe around this time. It was also the Age of Discovery or Exploration which was brought about by the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. This commenced the journey for discoveries and conquests of different regions in the globe which were colonized with time and forms an indispensible part of the history of Europe.
The invention of printing press by Johannes Gutenburg also revolutionized culture as it enabled dissemination of knowledge on a wide scale. It impacted the succeeding generations including the German Reformation as it enabled distribution of Bibles, leaflets and pamphlets exposing Roman Catholic corruption in the vernaculars. European cultural and social values have been greatly influenced and shaped by its political and intellectual currents. The cultural implications of the Age of Reason or Enlightenment in Europe is felt and witnessed even today. During this period, traditional authority was questioned, religion came under scathe and rationality was emphasized for change in humanity. Enlightenment thinkers in different places like John Locke in England, Voltaire and Montesqieu in France and Rousseau in Geneva (Switzerland) were the advocates of such values. Science, rationality and individualism are the major traits of the society today in Europe and the once powerful religious traditions are now relegated to the private sphere and with the separation of the church and the state, division between the sacred and the secular in the lives of the people is the norm. Through the centuries, Europe has led the world in the field of scientific
revolution and discoveries by figures like Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilee, Darwin, Louis Pasteur, Alexander Fleming etc.
If we look at the historical traditions that shaped Europe and the rest of the world, many of them are a product of different revolutions. The French Revolution of 1788-89 culminated in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and relinquished the authority of the monarchy while paving way for parliamentary Constituency. France became a republic with a representative Government that guaranteed freedom and equality, property rights and liberty to its citizens and separated the domain of the state and the church. With the declaration, many corporations were dissolved and the state took over the privileges. Education was the preserve of the Universities and the state became the sovereign over education. The French Revolution became a background for future upheavals in other parts of Europe and shaped the process of the creation of nation states in Germany and Italy. Similarly in England, the Glorious Revolution also known as the Bloodless Revolution of 1688-89 deposed a Catholic King James II to enthrone his Protestant daughter and this paved the way for the beginning of political democracy where the power of the monarchy was undermined by the Parliament. It was through this passage, the Declaration of Rights or the Bill of Rights was passed whereby certain constitutional principles indispensable for constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy were laid down. The Bill also dictated the powers of the monarchy and checked the possibility of tyranny and despotism. Accession to the throne was determined by an act of the Parliament and it removed the concept of the divine rights of the rulers to rule. The Revolution is called bloodless because it was won without bloodshed. This brought an end to the Catholic domination and precluded the rise of Catholic rulers in the future.
Another event which is important to the historical trajectory of Europe into modern culture is the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). It was the culmination point of the Thirty Years of War between the Roman Catholics and the Protestants, fought by the armies of different Kingdoms spreading over Englan, France, Habsburg Monarchy etc. and the Holy Roman Empire. The War saw bloody massacre of hundreds of people and with no apparent winning side was ended by the Treaty of Westphalia. The legacy of the treaty was the declaration of the sovereignty of each state which precluded the interference of any other state in the internal matters of other sovereign states. The sovereignty and authority of the state and its jurisdiction over its territory was consolidated through this treaty and it loosened the hold of papacy on many states. The notion of collective security also evolved through this process and came to govern the basis of relationship between the different states. All these events are important precedents for the evolution of modern democratic states.
It is thus evident that Europe’s traditions and values are drawn from historical events and processes and came to form the basis of the foundation of European society even today. Its values especially
political views and human values continue to exert influence on how the worldviews and perspectives of people as well as statecraft around the world.
Different Aspects of European Culture
The European languages generally belong to a sub family of languages like German and English under the Germanic language, Irish and Scottish under the Gaelic which is a division of the Celtic language, Romance language consisting of Romanian, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and French and Slavic Language comprising of Russian, Ukrainian, Polish and few others. European languages like Spanish, English and Portuguese are among the top 10 most spoken languages in the world and are the medium of communication and the official language of many countries outside Europe. Languages like German, Italian and French are also popular languages that people try to learn and master. Latin though considered a dead language today has influenced lot of the other languages in the world, many of which are derived from it. It was known as the lingua franca during the days of the Roman Empire due to its widespread usage in daily conversations.
Europe also has an enormous repository of literary culture be it poems or books. The Illiad and the Odyssey and Shakespeare are classics with a class of its own. Many children’s folktales and fairytales like the Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Pied Piper and not to forget, modern bestsellers like The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Sherlock Holmes and the Harry Potter are also European literature. The boarding school culture was also popularized by many writers through stories of various adventures in boarding schools. Typically European, the trend of boarding schools have now been established almost everywhere.
Carnivals are an important part of European Culture and are one of Europe’s intangible cultural assets. Some of the most well known Carnivals today are the Cologne Carnival in Germany, Binche Carnival in Belgium, Nice Carnival in France and Santa Cruz de Tenerife Carnival In Spain where the main attraction is the election of the Queen of the Carnival. These are extravagant celebrations where people dress up in fancy dresses and colorful costumes where normal life usually is halted as the celebrations is filled with parades, balls, singing and dancing and many traditional sessions. During the medieval times, carnivals were a time for the peasants and the lower classes to put up satirical plays to mock the system and it was also a time when aristocrats indulged in elaborate glamorous dances. One such culture of the aristocrats which piques our interest today is the famous Masquerade Balls which was closely associated with the Venetian Carnival. It was characterized by the mysterious aura cast by the masks that were worn and central to keeping one’s identity anonymous.
Theatre culture of today is also influenced by European culture which has its origins in Greek
culture. In honor of the Greek god Dionysius, the Greeks celebrated a theatre festival and this was called Dionysia. Theatrical plays can be tragic, comedic or satirical and they were part of performances at festivals and carnivals. Shakespearean plays like Romeo Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello etc are adapted and performed in different languages and cultures as well. The structure and form of theatre buildings today also bear the influence of European culture. Soliloquies or monologues were also popularized by Shakespearean plays and is now vastly employed in drams and plays. Europe also has colorful and energetic dances like the Spanish Flamenco, originating among the gypsies of Andalusia and the Bohemian Polka dance from Czech Republic as well as slow ballroom dance like Waltz which has its roots in Germany. Ballet is another elegant and graceful dance form that was developed during the Italian Renaissance and became polished as a concert dance form in France and Russia.
Europe has also produced beautiful classical music whose popularity and sway is yet to wane today. Western classics by musical geniuses like Mozart, Beethoven and Bach are still so popular today and many aspiring classical musicians strive to perfect these musical notes. In modern times, music was revolutionized by the British boy band the Beatles and their legacy still continues till today. The European painters also expressed culture through visual arts showing all its finesse and refinement and starting trends like naturalism, realism, impressionism and realism in their depictions. Michaelangelo, Leornado Da Vinci, Botticelli, Rembrandt are but few examples who leave behind paintings of depth and beauty which today is tantamount to cultural assets. In modern times too Europe has produced exceptional painters like Pablo Picasso whose most famous painting is Guernica.
In terms of cuisine, Europe has a variety as well as similarities across cultures. The diet is mostly comprised of large portions of meat or seafood and potato. In Germany, sausages are very famous where a dish called bratwurst (made of sausage) and Sauerbraten are the nation’s representative dishes. Italian traditional cuisine like pizza, pasta and spaghetti have also gained worldwide popularity and other cuisines like Pastries, pies, waffles which are also typically European have now spread as choice desserts in many countries. France is also well known for its bakery especially for croissants and the French baguette as well as for Souffle and Flamiche which are signature desserts with its origin in France. Spanish Cuisine also have rich and savoury dishes like the Tortilla, Paella Valenciana, Gazpacho etc which have the flavors of different parts of Spain. Eastern Europe also has its distinct taste and comprises of different cuisines like Hungarian, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish and Czech. Among the East Asian recipes, the Hungarian Porkolt or Stew, Polish Bigos, Russia’s Pelmeni and Romania’s Sarmale are dishes that are recognized as the national dish of each of the respective countries.
Thus, Europe is culturally diverse, yet there is a common agreement of certain common values and common heritage among the Europeans. The formation of European Union can be seen also in terms of the endeavor to define Europe in terms of cultural integrity and find some congruity between the different cultural and political traditions. When we talk of Europe as having a European culture, it does not mean homogeneity but implies multiculturalism and diversity as its main characteristic. Each country in Europe has its own traditions and legacy rooted in history which has contributed towards shaping the common ideals that we today ascribe as European culture. Some of these ideals which endure with all its strength include Europe’s strong believe and advocacy for human rights, secularism, laissez faire policies and different kinds of freedom essential for a human to live in the society.