Jonathan Sumption

New light on a dark age

Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom, by Tom Holland
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Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom

Tom Holland

Little, Brown, pp. 476, £

Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom, by Tom Holland

Millennia, like centuries, are artificial quantities, mathematical nothings. Medieval men may not have shared our obsession with marking the years in round numbers. But they had much the same desire to bring form and structure to a history that might otherwise be a mere jumble of events.

Chronicles traditionally began at the Creation. All history was a divinely ordained cycle concluding with the last trump. Men lived under the perpetual threat of extinction. Apocalyptic writers of the age were remarkably precise about how it would happen. There would be natural calamities, human catastrophes, plague and mass-murder. Antichrist would come to reign on earth. Then all would be extinguished by the Second Coming.

But when? The first millennium was a damp squib, rather like the second. Absolutely nothing happened. So far as we can discover, hardly any one thought it would. Millennarianism, in our sense of the word, began after the year 1000, not before. In 1009, the mad Caliph Hakim came to Jerusalem and destroyed the Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This seemed a more promising sign of the end of time. Jerusalem was believed by the best authorities to be the place where the world would end. Hakim could easily pass for Antichrist. A great tide of western Christians headed for the Holy City, expecting to die and ascend to Paradise as the trumpets sounded in their ears. Again, nothing happened. People started counting the years. 1033 would be the thousandth anniversary of the death of Christ. Surely, that would be the moment. Another flood of pilgrims. Another disappointment. But this time it was followed by a sense of fresh beginning, as men realised that God had not yet finished with them after all.

In the last 60 years, nuclear disaster and climate change have generated a mood of collective pessimism, insecurity and self-hatred, tinged with apocalyptic enthusiasm, such as we have not seen since the beginning of the 11th century. It seems a good time to revisit the earlier occasion. That was obviously Tom Holland’s original plan. But it is hard to fill a book with a history of nothing, even if it happened three times. So what we have instead is a history of the century before and after the first millennium: the build-up, then the relief. There is not much else that unites this disparate period. But Tom Holland is a gifted narrator who covers the field with panache and a rich fund of adjectives. His theme is darkness and light, and he achieves dramatic effect by intensifying both.

The terrible tenth century was as grim a time in Europe’s history as any before the 20th. The continent was invaded by Vikings from the north and west, seaborne Arabs from the south, and nomadic Magyar tribes from the east. They left trails of destruction and death wherever they went. Holland paints a black picture of the life of peasants, even if they lived far from the invasion routes, in an age when the lot of countrymen was enslavement or indiscriminate murder at the hands of local noblemen. The kingdoms of western Europe splintered into small fragments, whose rulers terrorised their own subjects and fought against each other, reducing much of the continent to a barely habitable waste.

With the passing of the millennium, we move into an age of optimism and hope, but with dark streaks almost as forbidding as the blackness of the previous century. Holland traces the history of the spiritual revival associated with the Burgundian abbey of Cluny and the reform of the Church by a renascent papacy. It was an age in which new political communities came into being, recognisable as the prototypes of modern nation-states. Humble men found a new solidarity, which enabled them to create relatively orderly societies, at least by comparison with the earlier period, but also to express their new-found sense of identity in savage vendettas against outsiders, such as heretics and Jews. In a sense, the First Crusade of 1097-99 was the culmination of all the feelings of community, collective aggression and religious excitement which marked out the 11th century as different.

Before reading Millennium, I would have said that to write a compelling narrative, for a non-specialist readership, about this difficult and rebarbative period of our history was well-nigh impossible. Obviously it isn’t. Tom Holland has written one which is based on wide reading in the contemporary sources and the rather impenetrable scholarly literature. He has a good feel for the dramatic moment and the colourful personality, as well as explaining much that is opaque about the mentality of the period. We do not have to agree with him that this is the birth of our world. Most of us will be grateful that it is not.

Written byJonathan Sumption

Jonathan Sumption is an author, medieval historian and former Supreme Court judge

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