34 of 38 people found the following review helpful
Very good, but not his best,
This review is from: Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom (Paperback)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.