No one talks about the Middle Ages. In the popular imagination, the thousand years between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance were a dark period in European history, where civilization was in decline, society stagnated and people were blinded by ignorance and superstition. However, history is never as simple as it appears, and the people living through that era certainly didn’t feel like they were in uneventful times. You can draw a direct line between what happened at the turn of the first millennium and the state of the world today. Everything is connected: skip over huge portions in the history of any country and you can’t expect to have all the necessary information to understand what is going on. In The Forge of Christendom, Tom Holland does a brilliant job of making an obscure section of history come alive, making us re-assess what we think we know in the process.
The first thing he points out is that Rome never really fell, at least not in the 400s. By the time Alaric the Great sacked the actual city of Rome in 410, it was a relative backwater that didn’t even rule Italy, much less the Empire. The regional capital was in Ravenna, two hundred miles north, while the imperial capital had long since moved to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). The Byzantines thought of themselves as Romans, and their capital was the biggest and most important city in the Mediterranean, if not the entire world. Their power fluctuated, but their strategic location, as well as their wealth, meant they were a major player internationally until the city finally fell in 1453. Rome and Persia had been rivals since the days of Julius Caesar, and the Crusades were just one chapter in the struggle between the two great civilizations.
Our system of dating itself comes from this time period. People started thinking about history in terms of AD and BC in the 800s, when Charlemagne popularized the Christian calendar to help unify his newly conquered realm. Charlemagne was the first medieval king worthy of the name, and the modern-day borders of France and Germany stem from how his empire was divided up between his sons after his death. After subduing most of the Western Europe, he needed to legitimize his rule, so he bartered with the Pope to crown him the Holy Roman Emperor. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement: the Pope asserted his authority over the other bishops in the Western Church, and established the precedent that rulers needed his blessing.
The running theme through the book is the conflict between the church and state in the West leading up to its resolution in 1073, when Henry IV kneeled before Pope Gregory VII and asked for forgiveness. There was no such separation in the East, either in the Eastern Orthodox church or the Islamic world, where power was centralized and religious leaders served at the pleasure of the king. The difference in the West was that the Bishops of Rome used their connection to the Apostle Peter, who lead the church in Rome before he was killed in the 60s, to elevate themselves over the rest of the Catholic church and turn the city into a religious capital. However, they never had the political power to go with it. The dominant tribes - the Franks, Germans and Normans - in the West were all Northern, and they had uneasy relationships with the Papacy. A particularly strong king, or pope, might hold sway for awhile, but the two offices were never combined in the way they were out East.
The Normans (aka the Northerners) were the descendants of Vikings who settled throughout Europe. They saw how Christianity could be useful: the church’s network of bishops provided a bureaucratic framework through which they could rule, while the religion gave them a reason to pillage new lands, since they were “bringing Christ” to the natives. Norman kings had to create wealth for their followers, so there was a constant push to expand into new territory, whether it was Iceland, Greenland, England or Russia. The name Russia came from the word “Rus”, which meant “rowing” in the language of the original inhabitants, because the Normans established a foothold in Russia by rowing down the Volga and Danube Rivers. Every king wanted Norman mercenaries: they fought on both sides of most major conflicts. The Byzantine Emperor had an entire regiment of them as a Praetorian Guard.
The European world was very interconnected. The peasants might not have moved around much, but the elites thought globally. One of the most memorable characters from the book is Harald the Varangian, a Norman captain who ventured abroad to win a fortune and marry a Russian princess. He cut a swath through Constantinople, where he was a medieval version of the most interesting man in the world:
Brags about his exploits in the imperial service would end up echoing as far afield as Iceland. In Sicily, it was claimed, he had captured no fewer than eighty towns. In the Holy Land, he had bathed in the River Jordan, and conquered Jerusalem - “an easy task for Harald”. In Constantinople, he had been thrown into prison by a lovelorn empress, helped to blind an emperor and fought with a dragon. The plausible and utterly fantastical, in the rumors of Harald’s deeds, were promiscuously mixed. And to a sensational effect - for in the North he was soon a living legend. Piled up for safe keeping in an island compound outside Novgorod was a great heap of treasure, “a hoard of wealth so immense that no one had ever seen its like before”: Harald’s winnings.Harald used his money to become king of Denmark and Norway, and when it ran low, he looked towards England, the richest kingdom in the Western world. The relative isolation of the English allowed them to create a centralized state, as well as a defined ethnic identity, much earlier than their neighbors. And the more unified a kingdom was, the more money the king made. The king of England, Harald Hardrada, was able to beat off the invasion and kill the other Harald, but that left him open to attack from across the English Channel lead by William the Conqueror. William was a real-life King Arthur: a descendant of an English noble family exiled to France, He had been groomed since childhood, along with a tight group of relatives who became his lieutenants, to be a warrior king. The Norman conquest of 1066 was the last successful invasion of the English islands, something which had been happening every few hundreds of years since the beginning of recorded history in Europe.
The Saracens (aka the Muslims) were the Normans of the South, a small warrior elite who ruled over a huge number of conquered peoples. They viewed their military success as proof their righteousness, and they taxed conquered dhimmis (Jews and Christians) at exorbitantly high rates to fund their armies. It was a brutal time. The origin of the word “slave” comes from how often the Slavic peoples in Eastern Europe were enslaved, by Christians and Muslims. Kings won their legitimacy by beating back foreign invaders. An unorganized society without one in charge wasn’t going to last very long.
Given the level of political turmoil, it’s no wonder people thought the end of the world was near. Humans have worried about the apocalypse since the beginning of time. Our society doesn’t believe in God anymore, but we still fear our sins will destroy the world:
Many tenth century Christians thought the millennial anniversaries of the birth and death of Jesus Christ signaled the beginning of the end times. As it turned out, though, the world kept right on spinning after they were gone. They thought they were living in the most important period of history, but by the turn of the second millennium, their descendants had written them out of the history books. People at the end of the third millennium will do the same to us. Ask the average person today about the year 3000, and they would probably question whether the world will last that long. It’s the same answer you would have gotten if you asked people a thousand years ago about the year 2000.
The most important period of history is always right now. History is the story the present tells about the past to shape the future. People remember what they want, and what actually happened quickly recedes in the sands of time. Fake news didn’t start with the internet. The medieval monk Gerbert, who became Pope Sylvester II, taught students about the Earth circling the Sun five hundreds of years before Copernicus. Things we take for granted now will be forgotten in the future, and people in the 1800s would be shocked at some of the things we don’t know. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.
- Ecclesiastes 1:3-4, 9-11