I’ve written before about the gaping holes in my reading, which I’m slowly trying to fill. But there are equally vast holes in my historical knowledge. Embarrassingly large, to be honest. And perhaps the largest of them was this one: how did modern Europe evolve from the ruins of the Roman Empire? What happened in those years between the sacking of Rome and the Renaissance? I’m old enough to have been taught that these were the ‘Dark Ages’, a time of ignorance and fear, when the light of knowledge was kept aflame by a handful of dutiful monks on windswept rocks while the rest of Europe ate itself.
Essentially bollocks, of course, and I have thankfully found the book which vividly describes the pulsating, crazy, untidy and brilliant truth. That book is Millennium by Tom Holland.
It came out in 2008 and was widely lauded for attempting something insane – a description of Europe from the Mediterranean to the Arctic Circle, from Ireland to Kiev and Byzantium, in the two centuries either side of the first Millennium. The ambition is, I repeat, insane. The fact that he’s pulled it off is somehow miraculous (and miracles, and visions, play a significant part in Holland’s story – one of his great achievements, I think, is to combine the visionary with the real in a way that pays respect to the ‘reality’ of miracles to the people of the 10th century).
I won’t try and describe it here. I’ll just say this: Tom Holland’s prose is remorselessly energetic. It rockets around the time and the continent with an almost demonic intensity. The bibliography is enough to make you weep, and to wonder how he did it. But did it he did.
Find out how the Holy Roman Empire was founded, hope popes and emperors reached accommodations, how Cluny became a vision of Paradise on Earth, how Muslim Spain declined and how the Vikings got bloody everywhere. The chapter on the first knights, and their status as no more than than well-armed thugs with a taste for land and gold, is worth the price of the book alone. For lovers of history written on a massive canvas, this is an essential read. Brilliant.