Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West

Tom Holland, The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West , (Anchor, 2008) 512 pages,
Verdict?: 4/5 An elegant and eloquent overview of a neglected turning point.

When most people think of the Middle Ages they tend to have a Hollywood conception in mind - castles, knights, armour, damsels, monks etc - as well as the usual cliches about it being a "dark age", a time of ignorance and superstition and a period in which the Catholic Church reigned supreme.  That latter cliche can range from a syrupy and pious romanticisation of the period as an "Age of Faith" to the more common conception of the Medieval Church as nothing more than an institution of dark oppression which kept "the people" ignorant and so ruled Europe as a vile theocracy that held everyone in an iron grip until the Reformation made everything okay again.  Or something.  It often comes as a surprise to people when I explain to them that most of the history of the Medieval Church was one of a weak and vulnerable institution struggling for survival and then struggling to free itself from secular domination.  The caricatured Medieval Church of Protestant Sunday school lessons, countless Hollywood movies and the popular imagination (even the popular imagination of many modern Catholics) is based on the Church of the very end of the Middle Ages - a Church that ultimately won most of its battles to free itself from secular domination.  The Church of the earlier centuries of that struggle was nothing like the one most people think they "know".

Tom Holland began his career as a novelist and it shows from the elegant flowing prose in his popularisations of history.  His first non-fiction work was Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic (2003), which took Julius Caesar's crossing the River Rubicon with his army and triggering a war with the Senate as a key turning point in history.  Two years later he released Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the Westwhich dealt with another turning point, the Battle of Thermopylae and the first clash between east and west in Europe. In both cases Holland took two reasonably well-known events and characters and used them to explore their wider contexts and cast some light on their significance for us today.  In The Forge of Christendom he chooses a much more obscure event as his turning point, but still does an admirable job of expanding on its context, even if he may be less successful at convincing of its modern significance.

Henry IV and his Anti-pope Clement III

Henry IV Goes to Canossa

On January 27 1077 AD Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, King of the Romans and the Germans and Caesar of western Christendom, stood barefoot in the snow under the small castle of Canossa, wearing the hairshirt of a penitent.  For three days he had waited outside the gate of the remote fortress, fasting and praying, while inside Pope Gregory VII and his ally Countess Matilda of Tuscany pondered whether to let him in.  This confrontation formed the climax of a two year struggle over what became a key question: who has the right to appoint bishops and abbots and other religious  office holders, the Church itself or secular rulers?  In 1075 Pope Gregory had set down the Dictatus papae, a set of axioms regarding the powers of the Pope and the Church that were the culmination and effective manifesto of the Cluniac reform movement that had been slowing gaining influence for the last five decades or more.  The Dictatus stated the key aims of the reform movement that had begun at the influential French Benedictine monastery of Cluny, but it was the fact that it stated that the Pope alone could appoint or depose churchmen and move or depose bishops that sparked the confrontation with the Holy Roman Emperor.

In a period in which bishoprics came with land and feudal duties and provided kings with political support, revenues and troops, the idea that a bishop could be appointed by a Pope alone was political anathema to a ruler like Henry IV.  He had spent a decade and a half struggling to raise his power from that of a child regent dominated by the great lords of Germany to the supreme ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, more powerful even than his father.  His ability to appoint favoured noblemen to powerful bishoprics and his capacity to sell Church appointments to the highest bidder as a source of revenue were key foundations to that hard-won power.  The Church reformers' ideology was not a threat while it remained theoretical or when it was simply aimed at ensuring priests were reasonably literate and pious.  But when the low-born but highly intelligent son of a village blacksmith, Hildebrand of Sovana, became Pope Gregory VII, the movement had effectively taken control of the Church and Gregory was ready for an ideological showdown.  The Dictatus' condemnations of lay investiture of bishops and "simony" (the selling of benefices) were bad enough, but Gregory also stated "it is permitted for (the Pope) to depose Emperors".  Not surprisingly, Henry struck back.

He sent Gregory an open letter declaring it was the Pope who was to be deposed.  It opened with the  sneering declaration "Henry, king not through usurpation but through the holy ordination of God, to Hildebrand, at present not pope but false monk" and ended by thundering "I, Henry, king by the grace of God, with all of my Bishops, say to you, come down, come down, and be damned throughout the ages!"  These were fighting words and a direct counter to Gregory's audacious new claims to authority.  And they were hardly empty words - unlike Gregory, Henry IV had armies at his disposal and all involved knew that if push came to shove he could and would march on Italy and depose the Pope by military force.

The Coronation of Charlemagne, from a later Medieval illumination

The Weakness of the Early Medieval Popes

In past centuries, that would have been the end of the matter.  Any previous Pope arrogant or mad enough to challenge the Holy Roman Emperor in this way would have been forced to quickly back down.  This is because the Popes of the first centuries of Christianity were vulnerable and weak.  While they had always maintained a claim to some form of ecclesiastical supremacy as successors of Saint Peter, in practice the Papa in Rome had become little more than the petty bishop of a shrunken city of relics and ruins with little influence beyond Rome's crumbling walls and often little more within them.

A few early Popes had successfully extended their influence into the rest of western Europe: notably Gregory the Great in the Seventh Century, who commissioned missionaries as far afield as Britain and the Rhineland to win back to the sphere of the Church territories lost to pagan barbarians.  But in the following centuries the Papacy became the plaything of local politics and vulnerable to the ruthless Lombard dukes who came to dominate northern and central Italy and to the squabbling factions in Rome itself.  In 799 AD the hapless Pope Leo III fell foul of the nobles of Rome and narrowly escaped having his eyes gouged out and his tongue removed.  He was forcibly deposed and sent to live in a monastery, but escaped and fled to the Frankish kingdom to the north, where he appealed to the powerful king of the Franks called Charles, later known as Charlemagne.  The Frankish king descended on Italy with an army and the hapless Pope in tow, exiled his opponents and restored Leo to the Papacy.  In return, and apparently to Charlemagne's surprise and chagrin, on Christmas Day 800 AD the Pope crowned the Frankish king as Emperor of a new and restored Roman Empire in the west.

It is generally thought that this move was entirely Leo's idea, though Charlemagne was hardly going to object.  This action established the Holy Roman Empire, with Charlemagne's various descendants taking the Imperial title right down to its final dissolution by Francis II in 1806.  Essentially what Leo wanted was to secure his relationship with the Frankish kings as protectors of a vulnerable and politically weak Papacy.  And the Popes did get the protection of the succession of Emperors, though the relationship entangled the Papacy and the Emperorship in a number of ways that were to have a profound effect on the history of Europe.  There was a long precedent for this kind of Imperial protection/dominance of the Church: ever since the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity back in 312 AD the various Roman emperors had been patrons and protectors of the Church.  And in the Byzantine Empire that tradition continued, with the Emperor often more religiously influential than any bishop or patriarch.  But since 476 AD there had been no Roman Emperor in western Europe and Leo III was not really reviving an old political and religious dynamic but creating a new one.

Initially Charlemagne and his successors tried to make it clear that they were the senior partners in this odd new relationship with the Church and Papacy.  Charlemagne's son Louis succeeded him to the title of Emperor, though Charlemagne pointedly crowned his son as co-Emperor and successor himself and did so in his Frankish Imperial capital without inviting or consulting the Pope.  But Frankish laws of succession tended to divide up territory amongst multiple sons and so Louis' Empire was divided in three among Charlegmagne's grandsons, setting the scene for a series of internecine wars in which rivals to the Imperial title increasingly turned to a coronation by the Pope of the day for added legitimacy.  So just as the Popes came to benefit from the protection and prestige of the new line of Emperors, so the Imperial successors and pretenders benefited from the blessing of the Popes.

A bare half-century on from the momentous Christmas Day of 800, and Leo's shade could have been well pleased.  Only a Pope, it was now accepted, had the power to bestow an imperial crown. (Holland, p. 62)
 But it was an uneasy relationship.

"The Beast and the Serpent" - From Beatus of Liebana's commentary

The Riders of the Apocalypse

Holland goes on to detail the centuries of turmoil and invasion that followed. The divided kingdoms of Charlemagne's descendants fractured and the Imperial title continued, though in diminished status, in the Ninth Century.  But in 936 it passed to the Saxon king Otto I; ironically a descendant of the pagan tribes Charlemagne had converted by the sword in a series of bloody wars over a century earlier.  The Europe of Otto and his dynasty, however, was one under constant attack from almost all sides.  To the east and south Islam was overwhelming Africa, expanding in Spain and conquering the islands of the Mediterranean.  From the east came a renewed threat from nomadic raiders, with the pagan Hungarians pushing into western Europe.  And from the north the Vikings who had raided far up the rivers of Frankia in the previous century returned to devastate the North Sea coasts.  Holland notes that these disasters and threats fed a religious fear of the coming of the End Times and the approach of the final apocalypse which he claims became more pronounced as the millennium - the year 1000 AD - approached.

Anyone who remembers the nonsense that attended the approach of the year 2000 will know some of the irrational fears that round numbered dates seem to hold for a certain type of people.  And there is no doubt that Revelation 20:1-3 has some cryptic things to say about Satan being bound for "one thousand years" and then "set free for a short time" to wreak havoc in the last days before the return of Christ.  But Holland's attempts to link many of the often quite disparate themes in his long book to a widespread fear of the year 1000 AD (or 1033 AD, a millennium after the Crucifixion) are not really very successful.  The real focus in the book is on the pivotal events of 1077 and attempts to link them to millennial fervour feel rather strained.  There is no doubt there were fears of the coming apocalypse in this time, but as Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages details, this was a mainstay of Medieval religious thought long before and long after 1000 AD and hardly unique or even particularly acute in the lead up to the end of the Tenth Century.

The later Tenth Century did turn out to be a turning point in many respects despite this.  In 955 Otto I gained massive prestige by winning an against-all-odds victory against a massive invading Hungarian army at Lechfeld, ending the threat from the east and beginning a long process of the expansion of Christendom eastwards.  In Spain the formerly powerful Caliphate of Córdoba went into a spiral of decline over several decades that would see its final collapse in 1031.  Back in 911 the Viking chieftain Hrólfr ("Rollo" to the Franks) swore allegiance to King Charles III, founding the Duchy of Normandy and bring the Viking depredations of mainland western Europe to an end.  And with all these turning points against western Europe's external threats came an increasing prosperity and an increasing expansion by western Christendom.  Change was beginning to sweep through Europe.

The Consecration of the Abbey of Cluny

The "White Mantle of Churches"

Holland may overstate the significance of the year 1000, but it is clear that even the denizens of the early Eleventh Century could feel something was happening.  Around 1027 the monk and chronicler Rodulfus Glaber wrote of a sense that things were transforming and changing for the better.    "It was as if the whole world were shaking itself free," he wrote, "shrugging off the burden of the past, and cladding itself everywhere in a white mantle of churches."  Certainly the new century saw new manifestations of piety among nobles and the common people.  As the nobility took advantage of any periods of lesser central royal power, castle-building and a consolidation of feudal structures increased across Europe.  These stronger fiefdoms also led to increased low-level warfare between the great lords, as they jockeyed for land and supremacy.  But at the same time there was an increase in lay piety as peasants, increasingly stripped of former rights by the new power structures, turned to the Church for help.

One source of Church authority that was particularly revered was the new wave of austere monasticism that emanated from the abbey in which Glaber had been writing - great Benedictine abbey of Cluny.  It had been founded in 910 by William I, Duke of Aquitaine, who granted a valley which had held his favourite hunting lodge as the basis for the new abbey to atone for a murder.  Remarkably, the Duke stated that he did not want to appoint the abbey's abbots and made the institution wholly independent.  Cluny established itself as entirely financially independent of the feudal system as well and went on to establish a network of daughter houses founded on the same principles of self-sufficiency, independence, piety, scholarship and, most of all, reform.

The great reform movement that swept through the Church in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries had Cluny and its network at its heart.  The reformers railed against the idea of a Church subservient to secular power and intertwined with the lay structures of feudal fiefdoms.  They championed the protection of the weak and the support of the poor and upheld the rights of peasants in the face of growing aristocratic power and increased internecine warfare.  And, most of all, they condemned the investiture of abbots and bishops by secular lords and "simony": the sale of Church offices for profit by the nobility and kings up to and including the Holy Roman Emperor.

This was a direct threat to the power of kings, but the reformers had the support of the common people and for the first time in centuries the commoners began to flex their political muscle.  The reformers strove to curtail the petty wars and depredations of robber barons and oppressive castellans, entering war-torn regions and declaring "the Truce of God".  Nobles who attended their prayer rallies with a view to scorning the whole idea found themselves confronted by thousands of pious commoners and were shamed into taking oaths of peace on holy relics - oaths they later found hard to break.

But as the Cluniac reform movement gained influence and its zealots climbed higher in the hierarchy of the Church, it was only a matter of time before there was a ideological showdown.  And that came when  Henry IV tried to depose Gregory VII.

"Not Pope but False Monk"

When Henry IV sought to depose Gregory VII, as the "false monk", in 1076 he expected little real resistance.  For the last several hundred years nobles had been used to appointing and deposing bishops and prelates at will and Emperors had deposed and replaced Popes many times before: Henry's own father had deposed no fewer than three Popes.  But Gregory and his advisers were products of the Cluniac system and fired with the zeal of reform.  The Pope countered Henry's declaration of his deposition by the audacious step of excommunicating the Emperor.  In previous centuries his largely symbolic step may have had little impact, but in the reforming age of the Eleventh Century it swung the mood of the common people against Henry.  Scenting blood, the ever fractious German nobles withdrew their support for the Emperor.  A rebellion rekindled in Saxony and the princes of Germany met to elect a new Emperor and depose Henry (failing only because they could not agree on a successor).

Henry saw the tide was turning against him and he began to march on Italy to see the Pope.  Thinking Henry was coming to depose Gregory by force, Countess Matilda of Tuscany gave him sanctuary in the castle of Canossa, but when the Emperor arrived it was in the hairshirt of a penitent, begging for the Pope to forgive him and lift his excommunication.  This left Gregory with a difficult choice:

The king's manoeuvre had comprehensively outflanked him.  As a result, he found himself confronted by an agonising dilemma.  Absolve Henry, Gregory knew, and all the confidence that the German princes had placed in him would inevitably be betrayed.  Refuse to show the humbled king mercy, however, and he would be betraying the duty that he owed to the Almighty himself. (Holland, p. 432)

In the end the devout religious man won out over the politician in Gregory and he relented, lifting his excommunication.  The short-term political result was a disaster for the Pope.  Henry turned on his rebel lords and defeated and killed the usurping king they had raised, then he returned to Italy in full military force in 1081 with the intention of finally deposing Gregory and installing his own Anti-pope.  Ironically, Gregory was forced to turn to another secular power, the militant Norman lords of southern Italy, to help him.  They rode north and rescued him, sacking and burning Rome itself in the process.  The people turned against Gregory as a result of the Norman depredations and he was finally deposed and taken south by the booty-laden Normans, where he died in despair in Salerno in 1084.  His bitter last words were said to have been "I have loved justice and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile."

The First European Revolution

This complex tale of the intrigues of, to most, long-forgotten Popes and Emperors in the "dark ages" may seem utterly irrelevant to many.  But Holland does a good job of pointing to its significance and explaining why Gregory's struggle with Henry reshaped Europe and actually made it exceptional, laying the foundations for some aspects of later European dominance.  Because while Gregory died thinking he had failed, his reforms were ultimately triumphant.  The total dominance of secular powers over the Church was broken and never re-established.  Later Popes waged ever more assertive battles for independence from secular politics and reached a pinnacle of influence in the Thirteenth Century under Innocent III before suffering a collapse of prestige in the Reformation.  But never again was the Church and religion fully under the domination of any state:

Gregory himself did not live to witness his ultimate victory - the cause for which he fought was destined to establish itself as perhaps the defining characteristic of western civilisation.  That the world can be divided into church and state, and that these twin realms should be distinct from each other: here are the presumptions that the eleventh century made 'fundamental to European society and culture, for the first time and permanently.' (Holland, p. 13)  

He quotes R.I. Moore, whose book The First European Revolution: c. 970-1215 traces this remarkable development and who observes "it is not easy for Europe's children to remember that it might have been otherwise" (Moore, p. 12) and notes one of the reasons for some disquiet in the west at any influx of Muslim immigrants, however small or peaceful, is that "to a pious Muslim the notion that the political and religious spheres can be separated is a shocking one - as it was to many of Gregory's opponents." (p. 14)

Holland's book is a sprawling epic and could be one that the non-Medievalist would find hard to keep straight in their head.  He begins with Henry and Gregory at Canossa but then takes a long sweep through several centuries of background and context before coming back to that climactic confrontation and its implications about 400 dense pages later.  Those who can see what he is doing should be able to follow along, but more casual readers may find themselves wondering about the relevance of lengthy digressions into the trading networks of the Rus Vikings on the Volga or the intricate diplomacy of the Byzantine court. As noted above, the attempt to use the idea of the coming apocalypse as a unifying theme is under-baked in places, though on the whole he does manage to hold the whole thing together.  What makes this book a joy to read is not simply the breadth of scholarship he manages to digest and lay out for the lay reader, but the fact that this novelist does it with a fiction-writer's elegance of phrase.  Otto II does not simply ride south to Italy, his "great force of iron-sheathed loricati ... clattered southwards".  And they do not simply find a land devastated by Saracen sea-raiders but rather "there, as the Saxons watered their horses, they found no vineyards, or villages, or fields, but only desolation - and over it all a stillness like that of a rifled grave.  Terror, in southern Italy, came surest by the sea." (p. 103)

The best popular histories do not simply digest scholarship about the past for the general reader, they make it come vividly to life.  Through the eloquence and elegance of his prose, Holland does that superbly.


Fortigurn said...

Highly enjoyable and readable review. Made me want to buy the book immediately.

Curt Emanuel said...

Good review Tim. I'll disagree with one of Holland's concepts, But never again was the Church and religion fully under the domination of any state

I'd think the 14th century Church was largely as much under France's thumb as the 11th century Church had been under the HRE's. Philip got Clement to suppress the Templars so he could make a land/money grab. You had the whole Avignon Popes thing going which quite often made them close to a French tool, particularly against England.

I couldn't make a judgement of whether the Church was wimpier in the 11th or 14th century but I do think the 11th was just another part of the cycle where the Church was pretty low. I don't see it as a watershed in that respect.

Stevo Darkly said...

I haven't even read it yet, but I wanted to comment how glad I am to see another blog post/review by Tim. These are always enlightening and always eagerly awaited.

Now, to read it!

Anonymous said...

I'm delighted to find a new review from your pen/keyboard. Needless to say, it's superb stuff. Just one question: Does Holland make any use of Johannes Fried's recent work on the subject?

Carl(os) said...

The e-book sits in my iPad, awaiting time to read it! (Perhaps sometimes before the _next_ millennium ... ;))

Kaptajn Congoboy said...

I read it on you recommendation, and it is quite good, but I think that he could have sacrificed some material for a better explanation of the nature of the Investiture Conflict and emphasized more how heavily Henry's control of his kingdom relied on his ability to invest bishops. I am also a bit divided on the flowery prose and repeated mention of miracles and rumours of miracles: it CAN help to get the reader into a medieval "mood", but it can also repel the reader through a sense of "otherness" (which, of course, can be a good thing as long as he isn't repelled...). Did he do this in his earlier books?

Anonymous said...


Great to see you posting. Please keep it up - you are always an interesting read.

Christof said...


came here after watching Agora again; loved and appreciated your comments and was fascinated by the discussion that followed in the comments. Sorry for derailing this topic slightly what follows is neither about Agora specifically, but not related to this review either. I'd have contacted you directly if I'd spotted a way to do so! :)

I am a writer, not overly tied to genre, working on my first novel, about to complete a MA in Writing. I do have a background in science, too (though, despite a first class BSc. I am aware I am not really quite analytically enough to claim the title scientist; the basics understandings of the need for accuracy / fact checking / critical thinking are there, though). I am not working on historical fiction, and I don't think I ever will (my focus is more on literary fiction / psychological fiction / poetry), but still: research and fact checking and trying to be accurate are important aspects of my writing to me. I'd like my writing to be balanced; but also am aware that, for a character's realistic depiction their perspective (and if they are the main narrator, with that the novel's narration itself) may have to be heavily biased. I work with that a lot - I am really interested in various perspectives of reality, thoughts on what truth is between different characters and the conflicts (and resolutions!) that can arise from that. [I.e. I am coming from a qualitative / phenomenologist perspective here - seeing (social) reality as constructed based on perception, more than truth, giving rise to a variety of truths in existence that compete and clash and give rise to misunderstandings. It's these differences in interpretations between various characters that interest me a lot.]

I'd love to see a discussion /thoughts by you, and in extension hopefully some of your readers, on what you'd ask of fiction to achieve that balance if you ever feel like having the time / motivation for that. What tips you'd have, what pitfalls you perceive.

One of the problems that a writer of fiction always will have is that there simply is a more limited time frame for research than what a specialist in a field (be it historian or otherwise has). My research is for a specific project, rather than necessary a life long interest. And there's a problem of limit to sources, limits to specialists that are available for advice (especially when starting out!). Science writing can be more focused because it works on a specific problem; I find literary writing more taxing on that end - I have to research a vastly wider area of very differing topics, especially when working with multiple characters, and can simply logistically only invest less time for each of these subjects than I'd necessarily like to. And I have to invest time in actually writing, re-writing, editing, re-inventing, considering plot, considering impact on the reader: the actual process of writing fiction, I find, is a whole lot more time intensive than scientific writing. The latter has the advantage of a clear focus, dealing with making a precise argument. Fiction by nature, often doesn't - it's vagueness and openness to interpretation is what makes it work - which in turn gives rise for unavoidable misinterpretation and misrepresentation.

I guess I am asking a bit of a philosophical question really in the light of both the discussion on Agora and your work on Dan Brown: How much inaccuracy is acceptable to you? Or, even more important for me as a writer, how can a work of fiction, especially if it may be perceived as more "truthful" than it is, send clear signals that it is fiction to the reader, while also being engaging and while not breaking the fourth wall, while incorporating flawed but realistic characters? What good examples have you come across? What makes them good examples to you?

How can people engaged in creating art / fiction assist in preventing a culturally "false" bias?


Christof said...


[I am asking here because I love the depth of argument that arose. You've seem to have built a readership that's heavily invested in that. I am especially interested in perspectives from people that have very little involvement with the actual creation of fictional writing.]

Thank you / best,

Dartholorin said...

Well, I could read these books, but given how detailed your reviews are, for the most casual, why bother? Glad I found your blog after all these years.

-Dartholorin ;-)

Tim O'Neill said...


I'm flattered that you thought I was worth asking about the relation between history and invention in fiction and maybe I will go into more detail in a future review - I'm sure I will be reviewing a novel at some stage where this question will be relevant.

Given that it's not really relevant to this particular review, I'll be brief for now. It's a generally understood convention that a reader should be able to trust what a fiction writer presents as historical in the setting or action of their work unless the author indicates otherwise. This is why most historical novels have some form of foreword or postscript or historical notes that set the parameters and allow a reader who cares about such things to get some idea of what is historical and what is invention.

At times the author can play games with the reader and keep them guessing about what is historical and what isn't. Eco's The Name of the Rose was enjoyable for a medievalist like me partly because of fun of recognising some of the more obscure allusions but also because of stumbling across even more elements mentioned in the book when reading medieval source material, often years later. But on the whole authors take their duty to at least try to get things right, and indicate when they are making things up, fairly seriously

The problem with someone like Dan Brown is he completely abused this conventional understanding by lying about what bits were historical and then playing coy when he was called on it. he could afford to - by then his deceit had sold millions of novels and he was rich.

The convention doesn't actually require the writer to actually get everything right, just to try to do so. I put down Follet's Pillars of the Earth because the egregious errors got too annoying, but I'm sure he at least tried to research the period and for most people (not historical pedants like me) none of the errors would have been obvious.

If you respect the convention that what you present as history has been researched then you will be treating your readers with due regard. And you'll avoid being a lying hack slimeball like Dan Brown.