19 June 2014

A Thousand Years Ago, Today

by Tom Holland

This is an action-packed overview of an era when the Dark Ages were just becoming the Middle Ages. The author does a heroic job of helping the reader distinguish between the various mailed thugs – Frankish, Saxon, Norse (or Norman) and English – whose unedifying deeds form the basis of the action. Even so, the parade of Ottos, Henrys, Godfreys and the rest tends to blur into an undifferentiated mass as you keep reading. The same goes for the various revolting characters who passed through the turnstile of the papacy at this time, until we come at last to Gregory VII and Urban II, who were, in the terminology of 1066 and All That, genuinely ‘memorable’ (if not very likeable).

The events which form the matter of Holland’s narrative are appalling. The notables of the time nearly all came to power through murder and bloodshed. If they inherited their positions, they were obliged to defend them with their lives. Betrayal was a constant in politics, brutality was the very stuff of daily life, women and the poor were fearfully exploited, and might was indubitably right. The life of a Norman noble, Holland tells us, was one of constant, deliberately courted danger and violence – hunting, fighting, war. It was a kind of artificial selection, a culture designed to weed out all but the strongest, the most capable and the most brutal.

Meanwhile, though, Christianity with its message of peace and humility was also growing in strength, spreading into parts of Europe from which it had long been gone (Spain) or had never been before (Sweden), and commanding such implicit and universal belief that the thuggish nobles who performed these dark deeds were often hysterically guilty about them, constantly seeking absolution from the Church and subjecting themselves to absurd penances. It probably made them worse in the long run.

Aside from the case Holland makes for the sociopolitical effects of millenarianism at the time, I found the book somewhat short on thematic coherence and argument. There is a narrative here about how church and state came to be separate in Europe — the book begins with a ‘preface’ describing the famous confrontation between Henry IV and Gregory VII at Canossa — but Holland doesn’t really pursue the argument as far as he might. There is also a narrative about the effect of Christianity on politics in the Age of Faith, but this, as you might expect, is somewhat incoherent. It doesn’t spoil the blood and thunder, though.

One insight presented in the book stunned me, though perhaps it shouldn’t have. Like most people today, I've tended to look upon castles as fortified enclosures built for defensive purposes, now outmoded and rather romantic in their associations, their evocation of knightly tournaments and fair damsels and acts of chivalrous derring-do. Holland explains that in fact, the first castles were not defensive but offensive structures — the means whereby local and regional strongmen (or lords, if you prefer) could garrison the lands they seized with hired thugs (or knights, if you prefer), denying the use of the fields and forests to the common people and enabling the imposition of vampiric taxes and expropriations. The lowering wooden palisade (later stone-walled) on the hill was, for mediaeval men and woman, the locus of terror and evil.

Castles, in short, were among the earliest instruments of the process of dispossession and enclosure that, over long centuries, concentrated more and more of Europe’s resources in the hands of fewer and fewer people, until it was halted (temporarily) by the French Revolution eight hundred years later.

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