Last year I was fortunate enough to attend the Adelaide Writers’ Festival and see a panel with Tom Holland and Tom Keneally on the writing of history. While there I bought a copy of Tom Holland’s Millenium. Despite my best efforts it remained on the shelves unread. But its call persuaded me that it would be a suitable volume to take on holiday over the Christmas/New Year period As I would be in Bayeux for a good chunk of it it proved to be an apposite choice. The events of 1066 get a chapter to themselves, and as it happened I read it while in Bayeux (and I still smile thinking about it).
I wanted to write a longer and more considered review, but I was in holiday mode, and took very few notes. Mind you, Bayeaux is completely beguiling, and probably no notes would have made sense.
The Goodreads review that is below will have to do. Suffice to say that I really enjoyed it, though it may not be everyone’s cup of tea.
And, to finish, I go into sycophantic fan mode and show the photo that I took of the signed title page that I took just before I began. Also, in deference to the author, I won’t mention the words ‘Ashes’ or ‘KP’. Now, I really must read Tom Keneally’s book that I also bought at the Festival…
A guy that I once played Dungeons and Dragons with was (and for all that I know is still) a member of the Society of Creative Anachronism. Its members dress as lords and ladies, knights, priests and monks (so far as I know, never as peasants). When we think of the Middle Ages in Western Europe, we think of a society with a strict hierarchy of classes based on birth in which peasants are tied by law to the land of a particular lord. More specifically, we think of a society in which the Roman church wields enormous power and that commands an infrastructure that sits alongside (and runs across) medieval kingdoms.
Millennium covers the roughly two hundred years from the early 10th to the late 12th centuries. The midpoint of this period is the turn of the millennium. Some thought that this would usher in the final Apocalypse. There was no universal agreement on the date – some thought that the Millennium of Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, would mark its beginning and calculated the date of the final day accordingly. We are reminded, unlike the fears of a nuclear apocalypse in the late 20th century, ‘for the wretched, for the poor, for the oppressed, the expectation of the world’s imminent end was bred not of fear but rather of hope’.
The millennium as such is not really the focus of this work, though it casts a shadow across the length of the book. The focus is the forging of Christendom, and how it was that the Roman church spread far beyond the lands taxed by Roman emperors. Within that is also the struggle for power between Pope and Emperor.
Holland reminds us that the civilisation that we think of as medieval didn’t start the Middle Ages so confidently. At the start of the 10th century, Spain was under the sway of the splendour of medieval Islam. The great cities of Europe were by and large located there. Cordoba, we learn, ‘had originally been a Roman foundation – but the capital of Al-Andalus, as befitted so fattened on the fruits of peace had long since burst its ancient walls’. Meanwhile, Saracen incursions in the south of France and Italy were common, from their domains in North Africa and Sicily.
Nor did the church have the independence that we associate with the medieval period. On Christmas Day 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor in Rome. Since then, Emperors took for themselves the right to appoint bishops within their domains.
For Holland, the decisive event was the humiliation of the Emperor Henry IV by Pope Gregory VII at Canossa. At stake was the right of a secular power to appoint bishops. Henry denounced Gregory as Pope, and in response Gregory issued a bull of excommunication. Travelling as a penitent to meet the Pope, Henry was refused entry to Canossa for three days. Henry backed down, and he was readmitted as a communicant.
It was a pivotal moment because by removing a monarch’s right to appoint clergy (inadvertently) opened up the possibility of a separation between clerical and secular polities.
This may be a confusing work for some because the scene changes from the Holy Roman Empire, to the Normans, back to the Empire, and so on. There is more material on the Roman west than on the Orthodox east, though if Holland is right and that Canossa is such a pivotal event, this is understandable.There are some lovely passages of prose which for me are dabbled in pleasing quantities, though tastes will vary.
I found this a thoroughly engaging work, and look forward very much to reading his prequel on the rise of Islam