In AD 900, few would have guessed that the splintering kingdoms of Christendom were candidates for future greatness. Hemmed in by implacable enemies on three sides, and by ocean on the fourth, it seemed that the Christian people had nowhere to turn. Indeed, there were many who feared--cast in the Millennium's shadow--that they were nearing the time when the Antichrist would appear, drowning the world in blood and heralding its end.
But the Antichrist did not appear, and Christendom did not collapse. Instead, forged from the convulsions of those terrible times, there emerged a new civilization as the Christian people set to the heroic task of building a Jerusalem on earth themselves. With an epic sweep that transports us from the crucifixion to the First Crusade, and from the glitter of Constantinople to the bleak shores of Canada, Tom Holland's The Forge of Christendom is a brilliant study of a truly fateful revolution: the emergence of Western Europe for the first time as a distinctive and expansionist power.
It was the age of Otto the Great and William the Conqueror, of Caliphs and Viking sea-kings, of hermits, monks, and serfs. It witnessed the spread of castles, the invention of knighthood, and the founding of a papal monarchy. Above all, it brought people to fear that the end days might be at hand, and yet also--with an effort so prodigious that it has the power to move us still--to invent themselves anew.
A momentous achievement: for this was nothing less than the founding of the modern West. It is an epic story that Tom Holland renders with the narrative skill and wide-angled scope of a novelist and the careful scholarship a historian. It will transform its readers' conception of the origins of the Modern West.
If Y2K proved anticlimactic, the Y1K crisis--apocalyptic expectations surrounding the year 1000--had a lasting impact, argues this far-ranging, over-reaching history of medieval Europe. Holland (Persian Fire) surveys the two and a half centuries between the fragmenting of Charlemagne's empire and the First Crusade, visiting milestones like the Norman conquest of England along with lesser invasions, raids, feudal vendettas, kidnappings and pope vs. antipope squabbles. He discerns movement amid the tumult and slaughter, as Catholic Europe went from anxious beleaguerment by the barbarians coming from every direction to confident expansionism. Holland's thesis that it was the disappointment of millennial hopes that gave Christendom its new focus on worldly progress is weakly supported; he has a hard time showing that anyone besides churchmen thought about the approaching millennium. His greater theme is Catholicism's civilizing mission: pagan foes are converted and co-opted, a new class of marauding knights is tamed by Church peace councils, and Pope Gregory VII's defiance of Emperor Henry IV inaugurates church-state separation. Holland's colorful, energetic narrative vividly captures the medieval mindset, while conveying the dynamism that underlay a seemingly static age. Maps. (May 5)
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May 03, 2009
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