By Tom Holland
Once again I found myself reading a book by Tom Holland. Shadow of the Sword was a reader recommendation and Amazon suggested Millennium on the basis of my established reading-habits. I can see why the two books are paired as well. While Shadow of the Sword covers the end of the ancient world the creation of Islam and it's expansion into Iran and the Eastern Mediterranean, Millennium covers the creation of the world that replaced the Roman Empire in the West. Of course as many of you likely have guessed if we're talking about the west in the dark ages, then we're talking about Christianity. Like Shadow of the Sword, Holland opens with a thesis that is somewhat surprising (but not as likely to provoke controversy); the pivotal moment of western history was in the Italian Alps in 1077 AD when the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (yes, yes I know the joke, we're not doing it here) Henry II walked barefoot to the Pope's winter quarters to request the forgiveness of his sins, thus creating the split of spiritual and political authority that in many ways has characterized modern western civilization. That division has worked out pretty well for Christianity and for the west as a whole. Say what you will, the Roman Catholic Church is still here and the Pope is still ministering from Rome, while the office of Caliph is part of the dust of history. But I digress. The conflict between the Pope and secular rulers and how that conflict mapped out how western society was going to work is a major thread of this book that ties a lot of it together.
Millennium covers a time period from the late 700s to the end of the 1st Crusade but really buckles down and focuses on a 200 year period before and after the first millennium (1000 AD), with the prior years really just brought in to provide context. It does however demonstrate the dramatic changes that can occur in some 300 odd years as Christianity goes from a religion under constant assault on all sides to a continent wide religion bound together within a single church under (theoretically at least) a single ruler. Mr. Holland takes us through the conversions of the Hungarians, Poles, Vikings and others. We watch the rise of Charlemagne's Empire and it's long slow death from the constant divisions between the sons of the Carolingian Kings. There was a struggle that lasted centuries to rebuild a reborn Roman Empire as Pagan Rome, once the oppressor of Christians, became the model for a universal Christian state. I found this haunting of western Christendom by Rome to be a fascinating part of the book. The Empire of Rome, once the greatest enemy of the faith had become the goal and hope that all Christians were striving for, the very model of what the Christian world should be. This tied into the ideas and folklore of the time, as a common belief came to be that Rome would rise up again and spread out to encompass the entire world and at that moment the last Roman Emperor would lay his crown down at Jerusalem to be taken up into heaven, and in doing so would unleash the Anti-Christ and begin the end of the world. This idea was taken so seriously not just by the peasantry but by the rulers themselves that the last Saxon Emperor Henry II vowed to go to pilgrimage to Jerusalem and lay down his crown on the very hill Jesus was crucified and thus bring about the end of days. He would die of disease before he could even leave Italy.
The social order was constantly on the verge of breaking down and often only just pulled back from the brink by heroic efforts and kludge-ridden compromises. Just going from this book, a reader can be forgiven for thinking that during the dark ages orderly and lawful societies were hard to find, fleeting, and frankly in a lot of ways they were. If it wasn’t the raids of pagan war bands (be they Wends, Vikings, Hungarians or worse) or Muslim pirates (who several times came close to raiding Rome itself), there were the constant battles between Christian warlords who brawled at levels ranging from the international to the embarrassingly local for land, money and power. This is was the unsightly origin of the Knighthood and feudalism. Men would build castles (often on someone else's land) not as a means of defense but as an offensive weapon and there didn't seem to be a difference between bandits and knights yet. There were times in France when if you left your home on a trip, you were virtually guaranteed to see more than a few dead bodies along the side of the road, and if you heard hoof prints that was a sign to flee for your life and hide.
We are also given a look at the consequences of that constant struggle to forge a stable society and social order. For example when all of society is looking like it's about to pull apart at the seams, it is no wonder that you start to think that this may just be the end of the world. Rather than make people lay down and die, the belief in the end of days often impelled them to action. Whether it be to go on pilgrimage to purify themselves or throwing themselves into the mass reform movement that swept the church and laid down the bedrock for the modern Church we know today. It also manifested itself in attempts to push back the chaos that seemed to be constantly attempting to pull down whatever pockets of peace and order remained in Europe. One example that I was completely unaware of until I read this book were what I call the Saxon Emperors. When the last of Charlemagne's descendants in Germany died, these were the men who were elected by the German Princes to carry on in his name. The Saxons would battle across the length and breadth of what would become Germany as well as battle it out with the still Pagan Hungarians and Prussians. These were the men who created the 1st Reich, and considered themselves the last Roman Emperors; and they could back this up by being crowned in Rome. I mentioned the last of the Emperors of this dynasty Henry II, I found myself actually feeling bad for the man as I read of his death and usually I don't approve of attempts to end the world.
This was not a time of a docile and quiet peasantry either but of men and women who despite their humble station were determined to make a mark on the world and leave behind something better. In France the Peace of God Movement driven mainly by the peasantry and Church as an attempt to get the early knights of the time to stop brawling with each other and setting the countryside on fire. This actually ended up being one of the main forces behind the feudal order we think of when we think of the middle ages, because peasants were prepared to trade their liberties and freedoms for peace, law, and order. Even a severely unfair and oppressive law and order was better for them then the sheer chaos threatening to engulf their lives. In modern times, it is not chaos that most of us are worried about, it is to much order suffocating and crushing our lives that motivates the majority of us. I find myself thinking that this is the one of the biggest changes in our worldviews and beliefs compared to people a thousand years ago. Today we fret about the law becoming the boot planted on the face of humanity forever, back then they were terrified that there would never be law again. This doesn't make either of us wrong mind you. The countryside of France in the 10th and 11th centuries was a completely different time and place compared to the modern west. We can travel outside the bounds of our towns and cities without worrying that there are armed men lying in wait to murder and rob us. In the west we don't have rival bands of warriors battling it out for lordship and dominion. We don't worry that strange sails on the horizon may be Vikings or Muslim pirates come to burn our homes, loot our wealth, and carry off our loved ones to a life of slavery and violation. On the flip side they didn't have effective law enforcement or communication networks. Most of them didn't benefit from organized effective government even on the local scale. I find myself reading this book and thinking to myself, no matter what it's sins (and it's sins are legion let us not forget) the nation-state has provided a secure and more or less peaceful environment for an increasingly vast part of humanity on a scale that has never been realized before on Earth. Let us give thanks for that even while we work to improve on the nation-state's shortcomings.
While the book concentrates mostly on Christendom, there are some space spared for the Islamic kingdoms and empires of the time. Mostly the Spanish Muslim states, which were honestly wealthier, more sophisticated, and better learned than almost any Christian state of the time barring the Byzantine Empire itself. There have been some attempts to rewrite those states as multi-cultural success stories, you won't find that narrative in this book. While the accomplishments of those states are noted and rightly so, we should also remember that these states had it has a matter of law that Christians and Jews could not hold government office for most of their history and demanded that Christian and Jews pay special taxes that the Muslims enjoyed exemption from. This doesn't make them special pits of depravity mind you, the Christians to the north were engaged in brutal wars with the various pagan nations around them that nearly took on the character of race wars (for example the English king Ethelred in 1002 carried out a mass pogrom of Danes living in his Kingdom. A good number of them were Christians at this point). One of the Muslim states, Cordoba, tore itself apart in a series of ethnic conflicts as natives turned against the imported Berbers that their leaders had brought in to do the fighting for them. The Berbers response was a simple one: they slaughtered the natives (shocking I know the idea that when you try to kill a group of soldiers and their loved ones that their first response is going to be to kill you back but there you go). Some are likely to make hay of this comparing it to the modern refugee situation in Europe, I'm going to state that there's a difference between a bunch of people fleeing a war and a group of people you specifically invited in to fight a war for you. But I do think Cordoba does carry a warning on the dangers of giving one ethnic group special status over another and how that can come back to bite you badly.
The book ends with the end of the 1st Crusade and the horrifying massacre that took place when the Crusaders took Jerusalem. This serves to end the book on a contrast from the beginning. The European Christians at the end of the book have gone from a people huddled in the wreckage of the end of a civilization being preyed upon by other cultures to launching military expeditions into the very heartlands of other cultures to take and hold territory in the name of wealth, power, and God. Millennium in this sense shows us the long slow struggle to rebuild a shattered social order, to preserve and expand Christianity, and to map the very foundations of modern Western Civilization. While I was frustrated in Mr. Holland showing me things I had no idea about and then wandering off to talk about things I know plenty about (like the Battle of Hastings, for God sakes I'm part of the Anglo-sphere I bloody well know about the Battle of Hastings the English won't shut up about it!), that's a result of the sheer amount of space and time that the book has to cover. It's educational, it's entertaining, and unless you're a medieval scholar odds are you will find yourself learning things you were completely unaware of. While I'm hoping that Mr. Holland will try writing more focused books soon, I find myself giving Millennium by Tom Holland an A. The sheer value of a book like this which is well written, and well ordered (with a time line in the back! Love that!) doesn't let me do much else. Hand his books to anyone who tells you history is boring or anyone who doesn't know where to start on the time period they cover.
Next week, a graphic novel as I try to take it easy. I'm sure nothing called the cycle of water can be that harsh right?
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen