Start with a few islands of Christianity in a raging sea of paganism, with Islam on the offensive everywhere; add a wide expectation of the imminent end of the world; shake violently for just short of 300 years … and what have you got?
A Europe Christianized from the Atlantic Ocean to the Volga River, from the fjords of Norway to the fields of Sicily—not only Christianized, but going on the attack against Islam and capturing Jerusalem.
How in the world could that have happened?
Answering that question is a vast undertaking—hardly the job for a science fiction and horror novelist. But Tom Holland also has a Ph.D. in history from Oxford and brings a unique set of talents to the task. Given the magnitude of the project, he deserves at least an “A” for ambition.
Far from being an arid academic tome, Holland’s book lays out history as a novelist would tell a story. The story has a plot, main characters, a central problem to be solved, and the solution, all supported by a lively, readable prose. Maybe being a successful novelist is not such a bad qualification for a historian, after all.
Nevertheless, the reader who has no passion for history may wind up staggering under the sheer weight of the information conveyed—most of it unfamiliar, even exotic. Mr. Holland’s opus will require a degree of commitment from the reader that he may not be equipped to give.
Climax at Canossa
For Holland, the climax of the story is the meeting, in 1077, between Henry IV, the on-again, off-again Holy Roman Emperor, and Pope Gregory VII at Canossa, Italy. Here, says Holland, was “an episode as fateful as any in Europe’s history” (p. xvii). There was “no precedent for the upheaval exemplified by Canossa—neither in the history of the Roman Church, nor in that of any other culture” (p. xx).
Described as the culmination of a “Papal revolution,” Holland finds more to it than that. For the first time, the Pope’s triumph over the Emperor at Canossa divided the world between church and state; and, without meaning to, managed “to banish God from an entire dimension of human affairs” (p. xxii). Indeed, “Voltaire and the First Amendment, multiculturalism and gay weddings: all have served as waymarks on the road from Canossa” (p. xxii).
Holland has an eye for a paradox. Given his subject, he needs one. In claiming and establishing their supremacy over kings and emperors, early medieval popes set up the church as an obstacle for worldly rulers to overcome. If Pope Innocent III could put all England under the Interdict in the thirteenth century to break King John to his will, Henry VIII could turn the tables on the Pope three centuries later. For the worldly power of the church, it’s been all downhill from there.
But another paradox looms just as large in Holland’s tale. The Christianization of Europe was achieved by leaders described repeatedly—and not without justice—as warlords, gangsters, murderers, looters: anything but examples of Christian virtue. Can we say that only God can use such tools for such an end?
Then and Now
As exotic as the setting of the story is, we can’t help being struck by strong parallels between it and our own time.
In the tenth century, as the millennium year 1000 drew near, Western Christians, with “excruciating tension” (p. 44), began to expect the End of the World and Christ’s Second Coming. Antichrist would come first, and then “all things would be brought to a fiery end” (p. 46). Today we are told to live in dread of Global Warming (or “climate change,” if the weather happens to be cold), Demographic Winter (featuring whole European nations dying out), global financial meltdown … whatever.
In the ninth and tenth centuries, European writers were demoralized by the persistence of paganism everywhere—aggressive paganism, what with the depredations of the Vikings from Scandinavia and the Hungarians (Magyars) from the East. Today churches stand empty or nearly empty all over Europe, and aggressive secular paganism threatens to devour what remains of Christianity.
In the ninth, tenth, and even the eleventh centuries, Islam was poised to invade and conquer Christian Europe. Muslim jihadists had already swallowed Sicily, most of Spain, and the Mediterranean islands. Muslim freebooters sailed with impunity up the rivers of Italy, laying waste the countryside. Muslim slave markets in Spain and Africa—with the aid of Jewish middlemen and paid-off Christian lordlings—sucked in untold tens of thousands of Christian victims from every corner of the continent. Men from Poland, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere were marched to Verdun, where Jewish surgeons specializing in the art castrated men to serve as eunuchs in Muslim harems (p. 102). The highest price of all was paid for men who had had their penises removed, too—probably because most of them didn’t survive the operation.
Today many Europeans live in dread of Muslim conquest, confidently predicted by Muslim imams and politicians alike—this time to be achieved not by sword’s point, but by simply outbreeding the European nations.
The difference between then and now is that early medieval European leaders, confronted by such fearful problems, solved them. They converted the pagans, conquered the Vikings and the Magyars, expelled the Muslims from the continent, built nation-states that are still here a thousand years later, and created the very conditions that allowed the popes to make the church their master. If their methods were more Old Testament than New, surely David and Joshua and Samson would have understood them. Whatever else may be said about them, it must at least be admitted they succeeded.
Unusually for a novelist, Holland doesn’t do enough to get inside some of these leaders’ minds. He tries to be objective, but it’s clear he doesn’t like these men. The recital of massacres, murders, crop-burnings, crime piled on top of crime, can make for dreary reading. And as for the poor, ordinary people of the time, the free peasants who were reduced to serfdom, “the silence of the poor is almost total” (p. 158). In the absence of any kind of surviving written record, Holland doesn’t try to speak for them.
Amid the ease and luxury of the twenty-first century, it’s hard to imagine a time when a leader and his men had to be more ferocious than their neighbors just to survive. It’s even harder to imagine where we might be today had those men of a thousand years ago failed in their struggle for survival. Plug in Gordon Brown for Alfred the Great, or Angela Merkel for Charlemagne, and you might be reading this article in Arabic—if you could read at all.
Something has been gained when a man like Olaf Haraldsson starts out his career as a Viking, terrorizing London—the song “London Bridge Is Falling Down” commemorates his most infamous exploit, pulling down the bridge to extort money from the city—converts to Christianity and remains zealously loyal to his new faith when it would have greatly benefited him, politically, to revert to paganism; makes good his claim to be the King of Norway; dies in battle against a wide coalition of ruthless enemies; and within a very short time afterward, is widely hailed as a saint. And so he comes down to us as St. Olaf, patron saint of Norway. Among his last words are these, to a pagan warrior who wished to join his army:
“If you will believe in me, then you must believe what I shall teach you. This you are to believe, that Jesus Christ created heaven and earth and all human beings; and that after death all shall go to him who are good and have the right faith.”
We don’t get this from Mr. Holland, but from an Icelandic historian of the thirteenth century. In painting the Christian kings and nobles of the early Middle Ages as nothing but gangsters and marauders, Holland gives in to modern prejudice and fails to do his subject justice.
The Rise of the Church
Opposed to these men of blood and iron, yet at the same time inextricably allied with them and dependent on them, was the early medieval church. Here Holland finds characters more to his liking.
Under the influence of Cluny Abbey, “a radiant bridgehead of heaven” (p. 163), the church labored to tame the lords and knights before they tore down the civilization they were created to protect. Holland observes, “[I]n the very measures taken to buttress humanity against the looming onslaught of Antichrist, and to prepare the world for its fiery end, might serve as well to secure a new beginning, and a new model of society” (p. 172). Thus in some of the more troubled districts, abbots and bishops succeeded in establishing “God’s Peace,” and knights and nobles were persuaded to swear—and keep—oaths of peace (pp. 169–170). Leaders like Canute the Great, the last man standing in the free-for-all for the throne of England in 1016, under the teaching of the church mended their ways: “It was as the model of a Christian king that he aimed to rule” (p. 221). Even Holland gives him grudging credit for sincerity: the church’s teaching must have been effective.
Things began to change. Instead of only building castles to overawe their neighbors, rulers now built churches, too. Distant nations like Poland and Hungary converted to Christianity. As the eleventh century got under way, conditions improved enough to allow for the making of pilgrimages to far-off holy places: a hundred years earlier, any attempt at pilgrimage would have been tantamount to suicide.
The year 1000 came and went without the Second Coming. So did 1033, recognized by the church as the one-thousandth anniversary of the Resurrection. “But the Lord had not come,” Holland writes. “And still the fallen world ran its course … Yet miraculously, with the coming of 1033, everything seemed to improve” (p. 255).
The Peace of God, the building of churches and monasteries everywhere, the flowering of pilgrimage—it was all working. Bit by bit, the pagans in Europe were conquered and converted; Islam was held at bay, then gradually driven back. Kings sat easier on their thrones. Not only did the church tirelessly evangelize among the people and teach the rulers better ways, but as their enemies were subdued, there was less and less to provoke the rulers to ferocity.
A Struggle for Supremacy
One issue, however, remained to be decided. Who was to be supreme in Christian Europe—the state (the Holy Roman Emperor, and assorted kings and princes) or the church, in the person of the pope?
It was a muddled question. In 1045, for instance, the church generated three popes at once. Emperor Henry III deposed all three and installed Clement II, who anointed him the heir of Charlemagne.
We have no space to retell the whole story here. After all, Holland needed more than 400 pages to do it, and still omitted or glossed over much. For him the culminating figure in the drama is Pope Gregory VII, who humbled Emperor Henry IV with excommunication, reinstatement, and fomenting civil war in his dominions. In fact, he excommunicated Henry twice, who repaid him by sacking Rome. “Rescued” by his Norman allies, Gregory died in exile, his victory apparently in ruins.
But Gregory’s reforms survived him; the papacy went from strength to strength; and in 1095 Pope Urban II felt strong enough to preach the First Crusade—marshaling the entire continent to take the battle to the Muslim world.
“There were forces in play,” writes Holland, “much greater than the Pope had ever appreciated—and now, despite all his reputation for prudence, it was he who set them loose” (p. 409).
“The arrival of the crusaders before the walls of the Holy City,” four years later, “was merely a single—albeit the most spectacular—manifestation of a process which, since the convulsive period of the millennium, had made of Europe something restless, and dynamic, and wholly new. Nor would it be the last,” Holland concludes (pp. 412–413).
It’s a long and epic story, with a cast of thousands, and Tom Holland is adept at telling it. But he is more a storyteller than anything else, and whatever agenda he has is skillfully concealed.
We cannot say for certain what lessons the author means us to learn from all this. But this is certain: Christian Europe arose from a nearly hopeless position and came, in time, to dominate the world. The forces collected and put to work by Charlemagne brought forth enduring nations, including, ultimately, our own United States.
These forces seem to have sunk into dormancy today. But can we believe that a Christian church established by Jesus Christ Himself, under God the Father’s sovereignty, will ever just lie down and die? We have Christ’s promise that the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
The gates of hell yawned wide for the church at the dawning of the Middle Ages; and yet God, operating through eminently fallible men, in His mercy forced them shut.
Now again they’re creaking open; but, “Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear: But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear” (Isa. 59:1–2).
Judgment and salvation alike come from the Lord, who keeps His promises. It is for us to repent and change our ways, and for Him to save. In whatever form salvation comes, we must be faithful.
 Snorri Sturluson, “St. Olaf’s Saga” in The Heimskringla, translated by Lee Hollander (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1991 paperback edition), 504.