Saturday, August 01, 2009

Form a line to the throne

The Dark Ages are typically skipped over in most histories. Despite books like the History of the Middle Ages, the period following the fall of Rome and before the Renaissance gets little coverage in the popular histories. Tom Holland, writer of vigorously entertaining and thoughtful histories of the West, has now turned to this era with Millennium: The End of the World and the Rise of Christendom. In the book, he explores how Christendom, and therefore the West as we know it, arose. The book begins and ends with the meeting of Pope and Emperor at Canossa where the first of many balances would be struck.

As in his prior books, Holland explores the mindset of his subjects as well as their actions. Great emphasis is placed on the concern that the world might really end and how the visitations of people like the Vikings might be a sign of the end times. Holland also highlights the role of those Vikings in creating modern nations like Britain and Russia.

I also appreciated his reminder that the people of this era were quite different from those of today. He shows the castle building knights to be predatory creators of protection rackets that devastated the autonomy and independence of the peasantry. The supposedly enlightened leaders of Islamic Andalus are shown as similarly cruel and exploitative.

Unfortunately, this one didn't hold together or delight as much as Rubicon. In part it is because he is telling a larger story, how the West started on its path of separate religious and state power. He had an easier task with Rubicon in describing how the Roman Republic collapsed. Fewer actors and a definite end. It's just not as tidy here and some of the stories feel like non sequiters.

Still, better than most history and much more likely to engage the average reader.


Citizen Reader said...

Hmmm, never heard of this author, and now I'd like to try either of these books. Thanks for the tip!

Brack said...

Also worth a look is Holland's Persian Fire, which traces the Greco-Persian conflicts. Holland has an amazing ability to frame historical events in cultural and political terms accessible to most readers today (even those of us who read not a lick of classical Greek).

Tripp said...


They are definitely worth your time.


Yes, that is perhaps his greatest strength.