Millennium (2008): Tom Holland


The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom

My goodness, it’s been a busy couple of weeks. Now at last the winter frenzy of work has been wrapped up; and today I experienced that most blissful of feelings: clearing my desk, closing down my computer and leaving the office for Christmas. No doubt the holidays will fly by very quickly, but I hope to spend a good proportion of them curled up with a good book. Luckily I have more than enough of those to choose from (though one of the novels on my to-read list is the kind of thing you might be rather surprised to see here; but more of that soon). For the last week or so, however, I’ve been kept occupied by a gripping, dense and rather enjoyable history book – a sweeping panorama of Europe in the two centuries which straddled the end of the first millennium.

After living through the last Millennium, Holland was struck by the fact that, even in our technologically advanced and generally secular age, there was a hint of unease about what would happen when we entered the year 2000. Looking back at the previous millennium, like some other historians (Robert Lacey among them), Holland believed that a similar millennial anxiety could explain – and perhaps even drove – many of the developments in Europe around the year 1000. (Then it was the Antichrist; now the Millennium Bug. Plus ça change.) He sets out on a vastly ambitious survey of the European and Mediterranean world between the years 900 and 1100.

From the Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt to the furthest reaches of Scandinavia; from the glittering, enduring city of Constantinople to the wealthy but fragmented kingdom of England, Holland explores two hundred years which fundamentally changed Europe from the relict of a faded Roman Empire into the antecedent of the continent we know today. He focuses on familiar forces: the growth of vassalage and the rise of the castle and the knight; the Papacy’s increasing sense of entitlement; the Investiture Crisis; and the growing vision of Christendom as an entity. Broadly speaking, he explores these issues as manifestations of a desire to bring ‘order’ back into the world, as a necessary stage of preparation for the rise of Antichrist, the Second Coming and ultimately the end of all things.

I’m not entirely convinced that one can really take the argument quite as far as Holland does, but it’s an interesting concept and one that allows him to throw light onto so many different aspects of medieval experience. For example, I found it very interesting to see how the church, with its increasing political power, also became increasingly militant. Around the year 800, the Byzantine emperor Nicephorus, struggling against Saracen armies, appealed to his bishops. The Saracens were motivated by the promise of paradise if they fell fighting the infidel. Couldn’t the bishops offer a similar incentive to Christian soldiers? The bishops, however, refused in horror. The very act of shedding blood, even that of an infidel, was so horrific that a soldier had to undertake three years of penance to wipe it out. However, move on three hundred years and it was a rather different story. In 1095, Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont, persuading his listeners that to fall en route to the liberation of Jerusalem would be equal to any penance. This complete volte face might be partly due to the differences between the Eastern church, ensconced in their conviction that they were the chosen of God (weren’t they the heirs of the Roman Empire?), and the Western church, which had to take a rather more pragmatic, rough-and-tumble approach to politics. But it’s still a massive ideological shift to have taken place in a relatively short amount of time.

This is a story full of personalities: from Robert Guiscard and the Norman adventurers in Southern Italy, to Fulk Nerra of Anjou and the pugnacious priest (and later pope) Hildebrand. Here there are Varangians; austere hermits; formidable Viking sea-lords; the swaggering aristocrats of medieval Rome; and the Wends, east of Saxony, with their eerie groves hung with the corpses of men and animals in honour of Woden. Wherever Holland goes, he tries to look at the period from the perspective of those who lived through it, which I suppose is an improvement in some ways on The Swerve. His storytelling is also rendered much more lively by his eye for the colourful and unusual. I was enormously tickled by his picture of Danish integration in England, in which native Englishmen became increasingly envious of the immigrants’ power over the ladies, thanks to their habits of frequent baths and (apparently) wearing eyeliner. Rather gleefully, Holland imagines ‘Englishmen and Scandinavians pooling make-up and hair-styling tips’ as forming the basis of cultural cohabitation in 9th-century England. These occasional moments of levity help to bring the whole to life – and it’s no mean feat to trace the fortunes of virtually every European nation from the dying days of the Roman Empire to the dawn of the high medieval period in little more than 400 pages. It’s the kind of book that has to be read at least twice before you can fully savour its richness.

One of the few areas that didn’t make quite as much sense to me was Holland’s explanation of the growth of castle-building and the oppression of the peasantry. I felt this section was a tiny bit confused, and his description of a pre-castellan golden age for peasants, foraging in the woods, ruled by their own elected leaders and holding meetings in the open fields, sounded less like real life and more like utopian fantasy. However, maybe I just need to read a bit more on the period to get my brain in gear again. He does sometimes flit around a bit, not only chronologically but also geographically – though plenty of maps are included which makes it much easier to grasp what’s going on.

I’ve only read one other book by Holland – Rubicon, which had an effect completely disproportionate to its size, in that it showed me just how exciting classical history could be. His books cover a daunting range of history encompassing fifteen hundred years, from the Battle of Salamis (Persian Fire) to the present volume, taking in early Imperial Rome and the formative years of Christianity and Islam (In the Shadow of the Sword) along the way. Some of the negative reviews I’ve seen criticise him for being too ‘popular’ and insufficiently specialist in his field. He has had to make some generalisations, I’ve no doubt, but I find it difficult to understand why you would criticise a book that is so full of passion and energy about its period and which – as far as I can tell – doesn’t have any horrific errors in it. Specialism per se is not a prerequisite of being a good historian; in fact, you can know Orderic Vitalis back to front and still be such a dull writer that you positively put people off. And I believe there’s a lot to be said for popular historians who can bring enthusiasm and energy to their subject and thereby inspire a whole new generation of readers. I was surprised to see that some people have also criticised him for writing in too flowery a manner – and feel compelled to note that I thought his writing was beautiful: descriptive, sensitive and shot through with humour. In short, the perfect kind of history book.

I’d definitely recommend Millennium to anyone else who has an interest in medieval history; and part of its joy is that, even if you know a bit about one particular area of medieval history, there will be plenty of fascinating little nuggets of information about other aspects. It really was a thoroughly enjoyable book; so enjoyable that I might end up buying my own copy so I can dip into it for reference. Thanks to Holland I’m now eyeing up those copies of Bloch’s Feudal Society and Anna Comnena’s Alexiad which I haven’t touched in nine years.

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