Saturday, 14 January 2012

Belloc’s "Path to Rome" is a fantastically entertaining travel book

Hilaire Belloc
A friend once remarked that the modern habit of reading biographies of writers rather than their writings is a sign of Western decadence. Having at the time just finished two biographies of writers I’d never read – Jim Thompson and Hilaire Belloc – I felt distinctly guilty. Well, after a gap of about ten years, I’ve finally got round to reading some Belloc. And what a wonderful experience it proved! 

While going through the list of free books available on the excellent Project Guttenberg site, I noticed The Path to Rome and, vaguely remembering that many consider it Belloc’s finest work, I downloaded it. Published in the year that he became a naturalised British citizen (he was born French), the book describes the journey Belloc undertook after a visit to the church at his birthplace in South Eastern France, which reignited his Catholic faith.

“I will start from the place where I served in arms for my sins [Belloc served in the French army before going up to Balliol]; I will walk all the way and take advantage of no wheeled thing; I will sleep rough and cover thirty miles a day, and I will hear Mass every morning; and I will be present at High Mass in St Peter’s on the Feast of St Peter and St Paul.”

And so this big, beefy, roaring, red-faced man bull-dozes his way across Catholic Europe like a one-man Panzer division, smoking and drinking, drawing pictures, compoising and singing songs, sleeping in forests and inns and barns, bellowing at the natives in English, French and Latin, almost getting himself killed as tried to cross the Alps in a storm, broiling in the fierce heat of Tuscany, getting himself arrested, hitching rides on passing carts, getting himself carried piggy-back across Italian rivers and almost running out of money on several occasions.

He was to break all of his pledges, except the last one – he made it to Rome in time.

And he did it all without a passport!

Belloc’s main theme is that the Catholic faith is Europe, and vice-versa. Jesus doesn’t get much of a look-in, to be honest – I remember A. N. Wilson in his biography quoting Belloc as describing Our Saviour as a “milksop”. No, he sees Catholicism as more of a unifying principle for the disparate peoples of the continent, a faith which offers repose, refuge, a structure made of art and ritual and decency, and fellowship through a shared view of the world. There’s a very touching incident when, having failed to make himself understood in an Italian inn, he spies a priest and they converse easily in Latin. “So once all we Europeans understood each other, but now we are divided by the worst malignancies of nations and classes, and a man does not so much love his nation as hate his neighbours…”

Belloc isn’t really the mystical type – he cheerfully admits to a delight in the pleasures of the physical world: “…for every pleasure I know comes from an intimate union between my body and my very human mind… Of pleasures, however, in which my senses have had no part I know nothing…” And that’s why one views him as a man who has chosen his faith, rather than having had it thrust upon him by divine revelation, or by arguing his way to it rationally. (In this he’s closer to a believer like Evelyn Waugh, rather than to C.S. Lewis.)

I can understand, in my own quiet way, what Belloc means – whatever belief I possess I reached via church architecture, rituals, art, poetry, literature, music, friends, family and nature. If I’d had to reason my way to Christianity, I’d never have made it. And whenever entering churches in other countries, I‘m more keenly aware of the connectedness of the peoples of Europe than at any other tiem, and I invariably feel nostalgia for those centuries during which I would have been able to attend Mass conducted in a religious lingua franca – nowadays religious paintings, sacred music and church architecture are the closest equivalents we have to liturgical Latin.

As for Belloc’s political and economic views (he was Liberal MP for Salford for a while and believed in a somewhat Medieval economic system called Distributism), well, I have to differ – but that’s for another post.

Although Belloc wasn’t to die until 1953 he strikes me as a classic Victorian in his verve, energy, certainty and all-round beefy robustness – especially when it comes to his flair for invective. I especially enjoyed his blast against “the mincing pedants and bloodless thin-faced rogues of the world”, and this from the Foreword (which, typically, he entitles “Praise of This Book”):

“Now there is another thing book writers do in their Prefaces, which is to introduce a mass of nincompoops of whom no one has ever heard… as though anyone cared a farthing for the rats!”

Man after my own heart!

In case I’ve given the impression that The Path to Rome is mainly a work of Christian apologetics, let me assure you it isn’t. First and foremost, it’s one of the best travel books I’ve ever read  – fast moving and entertaining – written by a writer who is thoroughly and invigoratingly alive.


  1. There are no problem with Latin Mass, it There is still, There are very few churches which celebrate it but there is

  2. And Belloc was a Great, I really love him. He always makes me feeling well, lighter, joyous and proud of being Catholic, as he was. We are brothers, perhaps because we share the same Faith. I don't know, but I feel it.

    1. We're brothers in Christ, but I'm an Anglo-Catholic, so a member of the Angican Church rather than the Roman variety. Having said that, a few years' ago we took a Catholic German exchange student to a service at our church and he told us it was more Catholic than his own church in Berlin. And his uncle regularly conducts Latin Mass in that city.

      Thanks for your comments - I think Belloc and his friend G.K. Chesterton are due for a revival.

  3. I wrote to this blog about Belloc thinking of Jesus as a milksop:
    they say it is false. Sorry for quoting your blog, but I wrote some of the websites where I read this thing, as an example. I didn't want to accuse you.
    Then, I actually said that I and Bellocare brothers because of being Roman Catholics, of course we too are brothers in Christ, but there is something that makes me love him very much. I have a great sympathy and respect for you, I really like you, but we are not the same thing, while reading Belloc and Chesterton I feel a great sense of common belonging, a difficult thing to explain. They make me proud of being Catholic, a Roman Catholic. I thing it is a beautiful thing, we are not all identical, every one of us (I feel the same thing reading about Eastern Orthodoxy) has his respectable tradition, and spiritual richness, as there is difference between the rites and spiritualities inside the Roman Catholic Church herself.
    Anyway, the liturgy in Roman Catholic Church is not so much cured to day. Sadly when I watch a film and see an altar ad Orientem I understand: Anglican! It can't be a Roman Catholic church! This makes me feel very sad. I never went to Traditional Latin Mass (the ancient rite, not the Bugnini's one in Latin) and I am spiritually preparing myself to do it, but I think it depends on the circumstances (money the parish has to buy the vestiments, opinions of the priests, because someone celebrates but he is not "Traditionalist" so... many things).
    Well sorry for my logorrhea ahahah
    and may Our common Father bless you! :)

    1. *I really like you Anglo-Catholics

    2. And I have quite a few Catholic friends - although, to be honest, most of them are lapsed, which seems a shame.

      I came across the Belloc "milksop" story in A.N. Wilson's book - but as there seems to be some doubt about it, I'll stop repeating the story until I can find my copy and check exactly what Wilson says. The problem is that the comment seems to fit so well with Belloc's bellicose character - although it's certainly an odd thing for a Christian to feel let alone say.