Guy's Reviews > Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom

Millennium by Tom Holland
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's review
Dec 02, 2008

it was ok
bookshelves: history
Read in November, 2008

The two centuries from 900 to 1100 were a fascinating time in Europe. Somehow the centuries of chaos and decay after the fall of Rome were brought to an end and a dynamic and expansive Europe was born. This book attempts to tell the tale of those years and (according to the author in his Preface) to identify some of the key factors that contributed to Europe's rise. "Attempts" being the operative word: the telling is stylistically flawed, and the key factors insufficiently analyzed and structured.

Part of the problem is the complexity of the subject. Any book which tries to cover the end of the Dark Ages, the creation of the Middle Ages, the Christianization of northern Europe, the separation of Church and State, the rise of the Pope and the fall of Byzantium, the halting and then reversal of the tide of Islam in the West, and the genesis of the Crusades, has set itself a hard task. If on top of this it tries to explain why all these things happened as they did, well then it better be written by a literary Hercules.

All the more important then to approach the subject systematically. A clear structure is required, story-telling needs to be separated from analysis, endogenous and exogenous factors need to be distinguished, cultural, geographic, economic and military factors considered, the roots in the past as well as the consequences in the future sketched. But that's not what Holland does. Instead we get a confused mixture of story-telling and occasional analysis, repetitive emphasis of religious factors coupled with near total silence about any others, and all written in a naive and breathless style apparently intended to be reminiscent of contemporary chroniclers.

As narrative it is flawed: I was left longing for a modern voice, and the profusion of cliches, flowery language, and distracting and/or misleading references (for example, the last chapter's title is "An Inconvenient Truth", and yes, this was written after Al Gore's film was made), is just irritating.

As history, which I take to mean description and analysis of past events to help us better understand what happened and how, it is close to a failure. The central focus on Christianity is probably correct, but the rise of Papal Rome and the spread of Christianity throughout northern Europe is, it seems to me, insufficient to explain why Europe rose to dominate first the Mediterranean and then the world. There are many more parts to this story... but they are passed over or given short shrift here. As a result I am left less convinced than I might otherwise have been about the importance of Christianity in the overall process... not, I'm sure, the result that Tom Holland was hoping for.

I still read the book through to the end, because I am fascinated by the time and I learned enough that was new to me (even while gritting my teeth sometimes at the style) to make the effort worthwhile. But it could have been a so much better book than it is.
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Comments <span class="smallText"> (showing 1-3 of 3) </span> <span class="smallText">(3 new)</span>

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message 1: by jon (new) - rated it 2 stars

jon hanson Excellent review and i agree with your comments regarding the style - i nearly put the book down after reading the opening preface. I eventually gave up halfway through the book after completely losing interest and just finding it a chore to read.

Disappointing after really enjoying Rubicon and Persian Fire.

message 2: by Guy (new) - rated it 2 stars

Guy jon wrote: "...Disappointing after really enjoying Rubicon and Persian Fire."

Nice to know that I should give Rubicon and Persian Fire a second chance. If you hadn't commented I would probably never have picked up a book by him again. So, thanks!

Ness I kept thinking he was going for JJ Norwich's style of humour (the Byzantium trilogy) at least when he was throwaway and arch about key players. But there's places where he's oversimplified or twisted records imo to make better narrative and a two page stretch of arguing from silence (because a theologian never mentioned year 1000 = apocalypse that means he must be too obsessed to speak of it) which hacked me off.

big thumbs up to your review

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