Tom Holland, ‘Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom’ Review



Millennium is Tom Holland’s panoramic journey through the two centuries either side of the year 1000. It is, in many ways, a rebuke to the stigma surrounding the Dark Ages in popular and academic circles. Rather than regurgitate the accepted narrative of cultural decline commonly attributed to the period, Holland argues that it was, at this crucial juncture in history, that the foundations of the modern West were slid agonisingly into place. 

On a brief side note, if you are more interested in Tom Holland’s study of Late Antiquity, In the Shadow of the Sword, please click this link to be re-directed to my review. 

The Antichrist and The Second Coming

Central to the narrative in Millennium is the notion – located in the apostle John’s writings in the New Testament – of the Antichrist springing up on Earth and ushering in the Second Coming. Christians held that the Antichrist would emerge on the anniversary of Christ’s birth, so the years predating the millennium were fraught with anxiety across Christendom. That the latter half of the 10th century was particularly destabilising, only served to re-enforce the belief that Christ’s adversary could rise up and instigate a wave of destruction at any moment

But the year passed and Antichrist did not appear. Attention now turned to the year 1033, a thousand years on from the crucifixion of Christ, as a likely date for impending Armageddon. Jerusalem had long been fabled as the site of the final showdown between good and evil: after the Fatimid caliph, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, ordered the sacking of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1009, this reality appeared closer than ever. Pilgrims across the West flocked to the Holy City in the ensuing decades, eager to catch the exact moment that Christ would rise from the dead. 

But the year passed and Antichrist did not appear. Attention now turned to the year 1033, a thousand years on from the crucifixion of Christ, as a likely date for impending Armageddon. Jerusalem had long been fabled as the site of the final showdown between good and evil: after the Fatimid caliph, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, ordered the sacking of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1009, this reality appeared closer than ever. Pilgrims across the West flocked to the Holy City in the ensuing decades, eager to catch the exact moment that Christ would rise from the dead.

Tom Holland, ‘Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom’

But once again, the year 1033 passed inconspicuously by and nothing out of the ordinary came to pass. Christendom took this as evidence that the end was not nigh; imbued with a newfound optimism, popes, monks and bishops set about creating a new religious order, while kings and princes started to stitch together new empires.

The Twin Pillars of Christendom: Church and State

The uneasy relationship between Church and State is a recurring theme in Holland’s account of the years 900 – 1100. On Christmas day 800, Pope Leo III had crowned Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor of the West, a high point in relations between the two parties. A devout Catholic, the focal-point of the Carolingian Empire set about consolidating Christianity’s presence in his domain. However, in the following centuries, politics and religion would increasingly clash in the West. 

The decline of the western half of the former Carolingian Empire (West Francia) had led to a power vacuum. Dukes, counts and castellans fought to retain, and expand, their regional power bases. Peasants were helpless in the face of armoured men on horses – knights – and even the clergy suffered, especially from land loss. Bishops in Southern France ushered in the Peace of God in 989 at the Council of Charoux, a mass peace movement that threatened feuding nobles with religious sanctions. Ecclesiastical legislation sought to regulate warfare and protect the vulnerable, and was supported by vast crowds in open-space councils. 

In the latter 10thcentury, Holland explains, there emerged a succession of ‘Reforming Popes’ bent on increasing papal authority and stamping out impious behaviour within the Catholic Church, particularly simony and priestly marriage. Gregory VII, formerly Hildebrand, and Urban II, otherwise known as Odo of Châtillon, were two key figures. 

Gregory VII was hellbent in his conviction that he was God’s vice-regent on Earth, and that the central role of the Catholic Church was to unify the entire world into a single, Christian society. He clashed increasingly with Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, over the appointment of bishops in a stand-off that became known as the investiture controversy. Although lay powers had traditionally invested bishops with their power, Gregory VII believed in papal supremacy over secular might. 

Over the course of his papacy, Gregory VII excommunicated Henry IV three times for disobeying him, the king famously walking over the Alps to Canossa in an attempt to secure the Bishop of Rome’s forgiveness. Henry IV even appointed an Antipope, Clement III, to try and wrestle away power from the incumbent pope. The events lead to a growing tension between the Church and State, which was only partially resolved in 1095, when Urban II called for the nobility to wrestle back authority over the Holy Land from Muslim infidels. The call was answered, and Jerusalem finally fell to the Crusaders in 1099.  

The Edge of Christendom 

Millennium adopts a notably Christian-centric perspective of the High Middle Ages; the spread of Christian doctrine across Europe is viewed as fundamentally beneficial – a process that served to prop-up, and enlarge, kingdoms and empires. 

Considerable attention is afforded to the periphery of Christendom in the first half of the book, particularly the pagan forces dwelling to the north and east of Europe. Holland offers detailed accounts of how the Kings of East Francia brought the Wends and Hungarians to submission, the baptism of the Duke of Poland (966), Rollo and Alexander of Kiev’s respective conversions to Christianity (911 & 988), the desolation of the Umayyad caliphate in Spain and the spread of Christian belief in Scandinavia. 

Over the roughly 200 years that Millenniumcovers, Christendom succeeded in not only shoring up its outposts, but expanding across vast swathes of land formerly inhabited by non-believers. 

Feudal Order

Narrative history is, by nature, less focused on why things happen, and more concerned with capturing historical events in an enticing and exciting manner. Invariably, Millennium suffers from the same fate. However, a chapter in the middle of the book, ‘Yielding Place to New’ is Holland at his analytical-best. 

The chapter zones in on the emergence of a new social order in the late 10thcentury, one that empowered local powers and detrimentally affected the multitude: the peasantry. Holland finds the first roots of what would become feudalism in France. He argues that the fashion for building castles – which, had initially flourished in Italy – made it easier for dukes and princes to harass rural dwellers. 

Indeed, the castle, in Holland’s eyes, was an almost mythological-like structure that began to dominate the French countryside in the Dark Ages: a power symbol that instilled fear into the hitherto free lower classes. As warring lords began to assume control over dotting farmers, the faintest signs of feudalism started to appear. 

Conclusion

Holland’s narrative-driven, ambitious and colourful take on narrative history offers a lot for readers. I learned a considerable amount about Norman efforts in Southern Italy, the formation of East and West Francia and popular religious prophecies in the period. 

Don’t expect 400 pages of systematic analysis and insight, but do expect a sound overview of developments in Europe across the High Middle Ages. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.