Making Sense of Medieval History

3b1dbirthofthewest Making Sense of Medieval History

The Birth of the West: Rome, Germany, France, and the Creation
of Europe in the Tenth Century, by Paul Collins,
PublicAffairs, 484 pages, $29.99.
Take five or six soap operas set in central and western Europe
in the 10th century. Chop in pieces, stir, and glue together more
or less at random. You now have something reasonably close to the
picture that emerges from The Birth of the West, 427 pages
of 10-century history as presented by the Australian author and
broadcaster Paul Collins. The reader is left wondering whether the
chaos is a bug or a feature, a failure of the author to shape his
material into a coherent story or a deliberate attempt to show the
reader the chaos of the period.
Collins does have a thesis, indeed two. The first is that “it
was precisely from the chaos of the tenth century that the Western
world in which we now live was born.” The second is that it was the
revival of central government, replacing feudal chaos with states
capable of maintaining order, that brought some substantial level
of peace and security to societies plagued by external and internal
“The early tenth century dawned in volence and disorder,”
Collins writes. “All effective government had broken down. People
lived in fear and chaos. Vikings launched raids with impunity,
Saracen Muslim pirates terrorized the Italian coastline seeking
slaves, the Magyars (Hungarians) terrorized much of Germany and
over the alps into Italy, and the breakdown of central government
meant that ordinary people across Western Europe, but particularly
in France, often lived in terror of local nobles, who were really
just thugs….Yet by the end of the century, order had been
restored in Germany, owing almost entirely to the recently
converted Saxons, who were the first to bring some political
organization to the heartland of Europe. In fact, this book’s
subtitle might well have been ‘How the Germans Saved Civilization’
by restoring a working central government.”
To his credit, Collins makes it clear that his working central
government was not very central, that “power in medieval society
was noncentralized, consensual, and consultative, even if the
consent was limited to the more powerful”—in short, that it was
what other historians would describe as feudal, a term he
disapproves of for somewhat unclear reasons.

Considered as a collection of historical facts, the book is
informative, although slow reading. So far as his theses go, I find
the first close to meaningless. Collins focuses on the Holy Roman
Empire, which one could, with some stretch, view as the nucleus of
the later states of central and eastern Europe. But the close of
the 10th century saw the Byzantine Empire still very much a going
concern, a substantial chunk of Europe in which classical antiquity
had not yet ended. Spain was still mostly under Muslim rule, and
Italy would remain a geographical expression for another eight
centuries and more. The papacy, later to become a central
institution of medieval Europe, was a joke, St. Peter’s throne
belonging to whomever the Roman clans, or some powerful figure in
northern Italy, or the Holy Roman Emperor when he got around to
bringing an army south through the Alpine passes, happened to favor
at the moment. Collins describes in detail the papacy’s most exotic
scene, when a dead pope’s body was exhumed by his successor to be
tried for heresy.
The western world we know was born in the 10th century. Or the
eighth. Or the 14th. Or perhaps…
The second thesis is more interesting. By the end of the 10th
century, the problem of Viking, Magyar, and Saracen raids had been
largely eliminated, but it is not clear how much of the credit
should go to the rise of central government in general or to the
heroes of Collins’ story—the Saxon dynasty of Holy Roman
Emperors—in particular. A skeptical reader will notice that
Ireland, with nothing close to a central government, was at least
as successful against the Vikings as France or the Anglo-Saxon
kingdoms. What ended the raids, assuming one does not count Harald
Hardrada’s failed invasion of England in 1066 or Canute’s
successful one a little earlier, was not the rise of the Holy Roman
Empire but the conversion of Scandinavia to Christianity. As to the
Saracens, Collins has to deal with the fact that it was William,
Count of Arles, allied with a number of other feudal lords, who
destroyed the base from which Saracens had been raiding pilgrims
crossing the alpine passes to Rome, and not Otto I. Collins gamely
explains that William only did it to prevent the German emperor
from doing it first.
The most interesting thing about the book may be what it implies
about how much we do not know. Thus, for instance, Collins offers a
lurid account of Theodora and Marizia, a mother and daughter
heavily involved in papal politics. (Marizia was supposedly the
mistress at age 14 of an 80-year-old pope.) He then mentions that
his source was writing 50 years after the events he describes, that
another source presents a much more attractive picture, and that
both have axes to grind. But he goes on to treat the first account
as accurate. He offers a glowing portrait of Theophano, a Byzantine
princess who became the wife of Otto II and mother of Otto III,
dismissing a much more critical picture from a contemporary source.
A historian with a different set of biases could have given us an
equally convincing version in which some of the good guys and bad
guys switched hats.
Collins does not like feudal lords and routinely refers to them
as thugs without ever making it clear in what way they were more
thuggish than the rulers of larger polities, such as Charlemagne,
who in 782 massacred more than 4,500 Saxon warriors after they had
surrendered, or Basil II, the Byzantine emperor who blinded 10,000
Bulgarians. He tells us that Gerbert of Aurillac, scholar and pope,
was “the greatest genius” of his age and “one of the greatest
polymaths in Western European History,” but Collins provides little
support for this beyond Gerbert’s role in introducing Arabic
numerals to Christian Europe and the fact that he believed the
world was spherical—a view shared, although Collins does not say
so, by essentially every educated European of the previous 800
years. Liutbrand, like Collins a fan of the Saxon dynasty of
emperors, is “without doubt the greatest Latinist and writer of the
tenth century” and “the tenth century’s first really
‘international’ man.”
While Collins concedes that some slavery still existed in
Europe—he does not mention that the Domesday book lists about a
tenth of the population of England as slaves—he portrays it as
primarily a Muslim practice, implying but not quite saying that the
word “slave” derived from “Slav” due to Muslim enslavement of
Slavs, when in fact it derives from Christian enslavement. He
claims that the idea of spreading religion by the sword only got to
Europe from Islam in the 11th century, conveniently forgetting just
how it was that the ancestors of his Saxon emperors became
Christian in the eighth and ninth.
Collins presents the conventional view of the dominant role of
religion in medieval Europe, cites several books by the French
medievalist Georges Duby, but not the
one in which Duby argues that the picture is badly distorted by
the fact that almost all of our sources are clerical. The point is
relevant for modern sources as well: Collins himself spent much of
his life as a Catholic priest before resigning over a dispute with
the Vatican and taking up a second career as writer and
None of that means that the story he tells is wrong. The modern
reader inclined to take any single historical view as gospel might
consider how much disagreement there is on issues for which we have
enormously better information—the Vietnam War, say, or the
evaluation of controversial political figures such as FDR, Reagan,
or Thatcher. It does not even mean that the book should have been
written differently. The story Collins tells is confusing enough as
is; it would be far more confusing if he had tried to keep all of
the alternative narratives going at once. And, to his credit, while
he tells a single story, he makes it clear that alternatives
exist—almost all of my critical comments are based on information
he himself presents. I would not recommend the book as light
reading, but it does provide a vivid picture of the century.
And it leaves me wondering whether Liutprand’s
Antapodosis, “a chronicle of intrigue, scandal and revenge
in which nothing is private or hidden,” is available in English

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Making Sense of Medieval History

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