on 15 November 2009
I really enjoyed Tom Hollands' previous two books (Rubicon and Persian Fire), but I found Millennium a little bit disjointed.
The other books were far more dramatic, with an epic clash of civilisations and charismatic personalities that sweep the reader up in the excitement and get them interested in the subject material. Instead, this book is lacking much of that, and feels unfocussed as it switches between the histories of different nations without much of a common theme between them (other than each starts with that country's conversion to christianity).
Strangely there are side-stories that seem like far more exciting subject material than the main thrust but are sadly neglected, including the decline of Byzantium from it's exceptional sophistication and holiness to corruption, infighting and collapse, or the crusades (the book ends with a very rushed account of the first crusade), and at first it seems like the book will chronicle the empire of Charlemagne and it's successor states but this is never fully realised.
In the end I was left confused about what the real theme of the book is supposed to be. The expected apocalypse with the coming of the millennium (hence the title of the book) is only really discussed in the first half of the book and even then only as a half-baked motivation for some of the events described (although the evidence for that explanation seems weak). Much of the book describes the evolution of the papacy from being a weak and powerless provincial bishopric into the undisputed head of the western church (with political independence from the kings of europe), but again, this covers only a small part of the book. The rise of christianity across the continent is another theme, but very little of the book describes conversions compared to the amount that discusses wars and politics.
I'm not saying that this is a bad book, but I would definitely rate it as a poor relation to the other two if (like me) you loved Tom Hollands' other books for their entertaining, page-turning drama and urgency.
on 14 September 2009
To anyone who, like me, savoured Tom Holland's previous works about the Roman empire ('Rubicon') and the struggle between the ancients Greeks and Persians ('Persian Fire'), it is perhaps only natural to begin his latest book with a measure of eager anticipation ('Will it be as good as those previous two?'). In 'Millenium', Holland has moved on several centuries in Western history to discuss, by and large, the decades immediately preceding and following the year 1000 AD, part of a period in our history still often referred to as 'the Dark Ages'. That they were, in many respects, anything but 'dark' I was aware of (amongst others, the French historian Jacques Le Goff demonstrated as much in his superb book 'The birth of Europe, 400-1500'), but nevertheless Holland's book was a welcome reminder.
But whereas Le Goff's subject matter is a period of no less than 1100 years, Holland's book, by concentrating (roughly) only on the period 950-1095, has a very different focus. Whereas Le Goff argues how many of our present-day institutions, habits, beliefs, ... ultimately derive from and were first shaped in the middle ages, Holland focuses on one aspect: how the coming of the year 1000 and with it the 1000nd anniversary of the birth of Christ had a profound influence on the 'decision makers' (for lack of a better word) of that period, and ultimately resulted in a momentous step: the division - never to be bridged again - between the 'earthly' empires and the Roman Catholic church. Simultaneously, the major countries of Western Europe and their 'national' identities started taking shape. Before, it was kings and dukes that decided on the next bishop (even the one presiding in Rome), after it was the Church itself that decided on those matters. Of course, historical developments are rarely that clearcut, and for centuries afterwards kings would continue to meddle in the affairs of the Church just as popes and bishops often had not only spiritual but also political agendas. But nevertheless, a decisive step had been taken.
By its very subject matter, this is largely a history of the elite of the day (kings, popes, emperors, bishops, dukes, ...) in which servs and peasants have very little role to play (except as the hapless servs of ruthless masters) but, be that as it may, Holland tells this story admirably well, and the book reads as easily as any detective or thriller. Holland as a knack of reducing events to their essence, and as opposed to many other history books, I didn't have to leaf back and forth continuously to keep track of all the Henry's and Otto's and so on and so forth.
So why then did I find this 'not his best'? Well, it's a minor point really, but contrary to 'Rubicon' and 'Persian Fire', towards the end I couldn't help but feel that Holland becomes repetitive, and elaborates his point just a bit too often (I simply lost track of the number of times he describes - in slightly different wordings - the anxieties caused by the expected second coming of the antichrist). It's a minor quip, but that's why I gave 4 instead of 5 stars to this otherwise excellent and engrossing book.
on 26 September 2008
Tom Holland does history and historians a great service. He brings areas of history such as the ancient world or the middle ages that have been increasingly the preserve of academics back to the general populace. He does this with wit, clever anecdote, narrative history and the confidence to nmatch his history with the trends in academia.
Millenium in this respect is a triumph of writing. First he succeeds in providing a highly cohesive narrative for a landscape that was divided amongst so many kingdoms and cultures, this is a victory in itself. secondly he ensures that his narrative is not the dull constitutional histories of the past that are a collection of dates but instead tries to really understand the motivations of the history.
Significantly he addresses the importance of religion and especially the Christian pre-occupation with the second coming. In an age that increasingly doesn't understand faith or wishes to downplay it's involvement in history, Holland masterfully draws in a clear and fair image of religion in keeping with current trends in middle ages history. He is very good at discuss the abbey at Cluny and using the abbey to draw a detailed image of the periods religious landscape. Skillfully he also looks at Muslim and Jewish attitudes and beliefs in the period and amazingly manages to fit into his narrative some well thought insights into the intellectual relationships between these faiths. It is often the downfall of historians of this period to take too Christian a view of events, but Holland succeeds in rising above this, it is to say the least refreshing.
The quality of his language and the structure of the book are also expertly compiled and depsite the need to travel both backwards and forwards in time to describe a kingdom or development, Hollands literary ability shines through.
I have only given the book 4 stars and need to explain why. In part Holland's great success in creating a unified history by focusing on Millenial angst also hinders the development of the work. First he never really addresses the extent to which we see AD 1000 as the millenium rather than the people of the middle ages who were less certain of dates and also using a plethora of religious dates to formulate an idea of the millenium (i.e. Christ's birth, crucifixtion, the birth of Mohammed etc), and that there were other reasons for the development of the period. He is disappointly uncritical of his entry point into the period, the millenium which feels like an opportunity wasted.
All in all a terrific work for a difficult period, Holland has made an accesible, intense and engrossing piece of history.
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.
on 19 October 2008
Did you expect the Day of Judgement or the appearance of the Antichrist at the Second Millenium in 2000? If so, sympathise with the hapless inhabitants of the Christian world around 1000 AD as they struggle for survival and are caught up in the Church and State's duel for world-leadership. In Tom Holland's new book, the focus is on the decades leading to and from the first Millennium, ending in the recapture of Jerusalem from the Saracens in 1099.
Against the violence of this background, holy men, land-hungry dukes, Viking pirates, popes and emperors briefly blaze, and are as quickly extinguished in the flames of siege and the yelling carnage of relentless warfare. In the work of any other writer, covering such a broad canvas could lead to incoherence and battle-fatigue, but Holland organises his sprawling material with exemplary clarity.
Holland is a historian for today. His zestfully colloquial style underlines the relevance that this far-off time has for us now. He relieves the derring-do occasionally by throwing in memorable descriptions of the splendour of Constantinople or the tranquil piety of the Abbey of Cluny. There has been less written about this murky period than almost any time in history. Its chief characters could only be brought to life by someone of Holland's wide-ranging scholarship and imagination, Despite his often meagre primary sources, his description of characters and events have an almost cinematographic immediacy.
This is a Big Read about a Big Subject. If you are so swept along that you miss some of the vivid detail, it will repay reading again - and again.
on 14 August 2010
I've read all Tom's books, and was happy to get a signed copy of this one for Xmas. Unfortunately Tom's signature was one of the few lines in the book that isn't overwhelmed with punctuation. There's an antiquarian prose style to the narrative that separates this book from his earlier and much more punchy work. I'd love to count the paragraphs that begin with the words "Not for" to be proceeded by about 4 commas and back to front statements. I found myself rereading sentences every couple of pages to make sure I understood the points being made. As a student of history and avid reader of many different authors, eras and themes, I was looking forward to this book but I have to admit to deep frustration with Tom's latest work. Hopefully Tom can revert back to the pithy and punchy style of Rubicon and Persian Fire next time!
The years between the fall of the Roman Empire and the turn of the first millennium are generally known as the 'Dark Ages', an era of brutality, poverty, illiteracy, paganism and savagery, when all the advances of the Greek and Roman civilisations seemed to vanish as though they had never been, and the shape of the countries we know as England, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Denmark, were barely coming into focus. Such was the case in Western Europe, at least. There was no such Dark Age in the Islamic or Byzantine Empires. In these years, it would have been all but impossible to imagine a time, not so far in the future, when both these mighty empires would be toppled and Western Europe would stand triumphant, stable and orderly, crowned by the splendour and spiritual muscle of the Pope in Rome.
Tom Holland chronicles the course of the centuries either side of 1000 AD, a time of much convulsion and upheaval: the 'birth pangs', as he calls it, of Western Europe. These were the years in which France was emerging from West Francia, a breakaway portion of the empire of the Franks, the empire of Charlemagne, who had been crowned emperor of the West in Rome itself and acknowledged as the western counterpart of the eastern emperor in Constantinople; in which the Scandinavia countries of Norway, Denmark, Iceland were turning away from Odin and the old gods and embracing Christianity; in which Vikings were settling, by force, in France and forming the land that would become Normandy; other Norsemen were settling further in the continent and becoming known as the Rus, eventually giving their name to Russia; yet more Normans were invading and conquering England, Sicily and southern Italy; the Muslim caliphate was splitting in two, with the Umayyad clan basing their dynasty in Cordoba in Muslim Spain, al-Andalus, and the Abbasid caliphate waging persistent war against the Byzantines.
And above all of this, the Church was establishing its grip, the power and influence of the Pope reaching into every kingdom - the secular and the spiritual no longer as separate as they had once been. Popes were claiming new powers and rights over kings, culminating in many kings coming under the papal sway as vassals, crowned and acknowledged by the Pope alone - in effect, the Pope was claiming that the whole of Christendom was subject to him and the Church. And in an act that would have lasting consequences, popes were coming to embracing the concept of a church-blessed 'holy war, a concept already well embedded in the Islamic jihad. In the space of two scant centuries, all this came to pass - and how much can be ascribed to 'millennial fever', to the fervid belief that the End of Days was nigh and the Antichrist due, with the thousand year anniversary of Christ' birth on the horizon, is the major theme of this book. The years before the turn of the millennium were dark and feverish, with many believing that the world was sinful and needed perfecting before the End of Days, giving rise to much of the impetus that propelled these changes.
Tom Holland is a marvellous writer - he has a tone that somehow manages to be wry and melodramatic at the same time, quite a skill. This isn't academic history, it is very much history for the uninformed, but there can be few authors better at painting such a sweep of history so enjoyably. I found the central theory of the millennial fever a little lacking, and it only really forms a central theme in the first half of the book. But I didn't enjoy this book any less for that. This is an era of history I've never been especially interested in - it's either Greek, Persian and Roman, or skipping over these middle years to get to 1066, but I could hardly put this book down.
on 5 September 2012
If you find the title of this review clunky and confusing, it might be an idea to give the book a miss.
Like seemingly every reviewer on this page, I greatly enjoyed Tom Holland's previous two books, Rubicon and Persian Fire. In this effort he has the admirable intention of covering a portion of history which is little discussed - the period immediately before and after the year 1000.
Some of the topics covered are extremely interesting and a lot of it will likely be new to most people. The Franks, the Saxons, the Normans and the hotchpotch of families who ruled early France all feature heavily. It's tied together loosely by the general sense of dread which filled Christendom around the turn of the millennium and the belief that the world was nearing its end.
I generally found most of the material and research excellent, but the book falls down quite significantly in my opinion when it comes to readability. There are two main reasons for that. The first is that the broad theme of Christian fears over "the end of the world" only has passing importance to most of the events described. It was a nice idea to find a common link between such a huge number of different peoples and leaders, but the net effect of this is that the book becomes quite repetitive, with constant references to the coming apocalypse that rather get in the way of the narrative.
The second problem is simply with the way it's written. Tom Holland is an excellent writer, but unlike his previous two books the language is overly elaborate and quite a chore to read. I'm not sure if there was an explicit intention to try and write in the style of a 10th century chronicler, but that's exactly how it reads.
Overall I would still encourage anyone interested in this period to read the book, but it's not as enjoyable as it perhaps could have been.
on 11 October 2008
I agree with A Hall that the author's previous books (Persian Fire and Rubicon) are tough acts to follow. But for me, Holland completes the hat-trick in real style. What he does so well is combine genuine scholarship with an eye for a great story, and he keeps on picking out neglected areas of history and bringing them to life. The 11th Century may not sound that mouthwatering to begin with but it does include the Battle of Hastings and the First Crusade - pretty juicy. And if, like me, you have a taste for the bloodthirsty details, Holland digs them all up and delivers them in spades. The hardback is a bit heavy to carry around, so I might wait until his next one comes out in paperback.
on 25 July 2009
Having read and enjoyed "Persian Fire" I gave this one a go. It is quite difficult reading mainly because it is not a concise subject matter and there are endless names to try and remember. In addition, Tom Holland's flowery prose does not always make for easy reading. I would go for the paperback version of this work if you are determined to give it a go.