Bold and blood-drenched

2008-12-10 00:00

No one writes history like Tom Holland. As with his Rubicon (the rise and fall of the Roman Republic) and Persian Fire (the ancient Persian Empire and its conflict with Greece), the canvas here is huge. This is evident in the subtitle: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom. Holland’s theme is nothing less than the growth of Christian Europe (amid “barbarians” like Wends and Hungarians, and Saracens from the east), from the conversion of the Emperor Constantine down to the terrifying prospect of the coming of the Antichrist 1 000 years after Christ’s birth (or resurrection — both dates set medieval teeth chattering.) Like Holland’s two previous books, this one focuses on massive pivotal events and movements.

Appropriate to his material, Holland’s prose rolls in sonorous, eloquent, complex sentences, demanding but never obscure, with an almost medieval flavour (he is utterly steeped in his material). He has a talent for catchy chapter titles: The Return of the King, Apocalypse Postponed, An Inconvenient Truth. And the book is filled with incisive and memorable observations. He describes the Viking warlord Olaf Trygvasson (recently converted to Christianity) heading for Norway and “stopping occasionally along the way to loot and murder in the name of the Prince of Peace” (p. 204). Elsewhere he describes Olaf again as “hardly the man to find his fingers around a windpipe and not apply a little squeeze” (p. 211). Of other famous figures he remarks, “Ironsided Edmund may have been — but Canute was forged of ice” (p. 218). These lurid cameos highlight a major feature of the book, which is its conviction that nearly all the great figures of the period were ruthless, brutal, power hungry and totally self-serving. Everyone from Constantine through Charlemagne, Alfred “the Great”, Edward “the Confessor”, William the Conqueror, a string of Ottos and Henrys, and numerous bishops and popes, in this book form a rogues’ gallery of blood-soaked and manipulative warmongers.

Holland also shows how the figures of the period were chillingly expert at justifying the most vicious acts in terms of Christianity. The book is not, of course, an attack on Christianity, but on the perverted uses to which it has so often been put by unscrupulous people.

Anyone eager to prove the racial and moral superiority of “Europeans” and Christians over anyone else may be rudely disabused of such prejudices by Holland’s book. Nearly all the perpetrators of the worst atrocities, physical and moral, in this thousand-year period were white men (and some women) and professing Christians. Just for the record, though, the Saracens are given their due as regards cruelty and fanatical domination-hunger.

The book also charts the rise and often the fall of numerous peoples: Romans, Franks, Saxons, Lombards, Normans, Byzantines, Saracens. If there is a problem in the book, it lies in the material, which is very complex and wide-ranging. However, it is worth the effort. With its 400-odd pages of text, a six-page timeline, 20 pages of references, and a 21-page bibliography, this is a big, bold, scholarly and utterly fascinating account of blood-drenched but world-shaping history.

David Pike

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