Top positive review
One person found this helpful
Illuminating the Dark Ages...
on 16 February 2016
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.