After having read Rubicon, Holland's masterpiece of popularization, this book was rather disappointing. It is about the approximate period of 900 to 1100 C.E., the convulsive transition between the Dark Ages and the great renascence of the Gothic era. This is an extraordinarily complex moment, not only in internal evolution of the Latin West but from the three civilizations (Viking, Hungarian, and Moslem) pressing it from all sides. Unfortunately, in contrast to the focus on key watershed events of Rubicon, this makes for a sprawling and diffuse narrative that Holland does not quite pull off.
The book begins with the moment when Henry IV (the future Holy Roman Emperor) is forced to pay penitence to Pope Gregory VII, that is, when a worldly leader must acknowledge for the first time his inferiority before the power (moral or otherwise) of the leader of the Latin branch of Christianity. Holland then promises that the book will examine the beginnings of modernity, when the imprecise promises of apocalypse and Christ's return to bring about justice in the next world did not occur when expected, at the turn of the first millennium, gave way to new political and spiritual arrangements that had to be undertaken on Earth. Unfortunately, by the end of the book, he did not do this. That being said, the journey through the book is in many ways deeply rewarding.
For starters, the West (i.e. Latin Christendom) had been under siege for centuries. First, a new eastern faith, Islam, had eaten away at Christendom to establish a fractious empire that was moving into Europe from two directions. Second, the Vikings and Hungarians, both savage pagan fighting forces, were also making inroads and sowing destruction. Third, inside the West, no coherent and durable political entities had emerged since the collapse of Rome, which perpetuated socio-economic and military chaos. In this lack of order, dynasties (e.g. Carolingian) emerged for a short time, only to collapse after a few generations like most pillage-based empires. Meanwhile, the church cowered before whoever was the current tyrant and meekly obeyed. Nonetheless, peasants were relatively free, there was great diversity in terms of religious observances, and oases of order (e.g. the Cluny monastery) flourished. While Holland covers these effectively, there are so many quirky details thrown at the reader that it is impossible to see where the narrative is going at times, particularly as he digresses too often into some interesting personal story about the powers that be.
Then a period of stability began. To accommodate Western Kings, the pagans began a long period of conversion to Christianity. This established a certain commonality and coherence to the emerging civilization, eventually rendering it far more manageable. In addition, with the construction of castles - a sign that the barbarian migrations were at last ending as ethnic/linguistic groups settled into the geographic spaces that many still occupy today - the stage was set for tighter political and economic control; this involved the brutal subjugation of the peasantry into organized serfdom. Moreover, the Arab advance had slowed, though the Turks were a new threat.
At the same time, the Christian Church faced a number of challenges. Feeling besieged quite literally, its leadership knew it had to offer more to its members during the Millennium hysteria and questioning. Not only did this lead to the creation of the knighthood - an attempt to marry brute force to Christian ideals - but to a reform movement from within the church. This established the notion of heresy, which narrowed Christian option and set the stage for the creation of an ideological apparatus with power to kill. In terms of behavior, this led to a renewed emphasis on penitence and saintly living, culminating in the accession by acclamation of the ascetic Hildebrand as Gregory VII, in defiance of both the Holy Roman Emperor and the Roman elites. This in turn generated a terminal conflict with King Henry IV, who was successively excommunicated, absolved, re-excommunicated, re-absolved, and then returned after civil war challenges to depose the Pope by force and install his own sop.
Unfortunately, the book had long lost its narrative thread by this point, the beginning of the Gothic era. THough Gregory VII had died in despair and exile, his spiritual successor Urban II, the shrewd and guileful Odo of Cluny, instituted many of his reforms and sparked the Crusades to retake the holy lands of the Near East. The book completely collapses at this point: Holland mentions that reforms were made, that economic developments gathered steam, that a new era dawned, but he neither analyses nor even characterizes them in any detail. That means he fails to explain "the epic rise of the West" of the subtitle (in American editions), which must have been a mere marketing tool.
WIth these severe deficiencies noted, I confess that much of my disappointment may be due to the fact that I don't know this period of history all that well, which is a question of the audience Holland was writing for - the very well informed, not the novice. In other words, I was trying to learn too much about the basics that simply were not covered well enough here. I did know much more about Julius Caesar and hence Rubicon was a much more enjoyable read. Nonetheless, Rubicon was far better focused into a coherent narrative, a format in which a tight story could be told with great success. That was not possible for the Millennium period.
Recommended. Holland over-extended himself on this one, but it is well worth the effort. His writing style is truly wonderful - playful yet serious, clear and wide-ranging. I will simply have to find what I was looking for - the making of Europe - somewhere else.