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The Forge of Christendom: 
The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West
by Tom Holland
Doubleday, 476 pages, $30

In 1872, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck stood before the German Reichstag and declared, “We shall not go to Canossa.” By calling up the image of the German king Henry IV standing barefoot in the snow at Canossa in 1077, seeking absolution from Pope Gregory VII, Bismarck served notice that he would not let any later pope stand in the way of the development of a modern German nation. Under Bismarck’s rule, Germany was determined that the Catholic Church would not meddle in German affairs of state.

A double irony exists in this: For centuries, the European states had been more eager to manage the affairs of the Church than the Church had been to intrude in civil matters. Moreover, the very notion that Church and state were two independent realms, one secular and one spiritual, was a consequence of the revolution inaugurated by Gregory VII eight hundred years earlier.

Although Gregory is not as well known as the reformers of the sixteenth century or the philosophes of the eighteenth century, a case can be made that Gregory’s studied rebuff of royal power in ecclesiastical affairs worked far greater changes in European political and religious life than did the upheavals of the Reformation or the Enlightenment.

That, at least, is the thesis of Tom Holland’s new book, The Forge of Christendom , a provocative and elegantly written account of the end of the first millennium and the beginning of the second. Gregory did not live to witness his ultimate victory. But “the cause for which he fought,” writes Holland, a British historian and radio personality, “was destined to establish itself as perhaps the defining characteristic of Western civilization.” That characteristic is the division of the world into Church and state, with these realms distinct from each other. In Holland’s eyes, Gregory “stood as godfather to the future.”

What makes this book such a pleasure to read is not only the author’s sprightly prose but also his informative presentation of the panorama of medieval life against which the drama of Canossa took place. It is as though Holland wants his reader to know, before he tells the story of Henry’s journey across the Alps in the dead of winter to await word from the pope, what tenth- and eleventh-century kings and emperors were really like. In a lengthy preface, Holland apprises the reader of the significance of what is to follow. He does not bring Gregory back onstage, however, until he has moved his narrative from Gaul to Germany and onward through Poland, Constantinople, Italy, Spain, Scandinavia, Normandy, and England. As a literary strategy, it works well. By the time Holland brings the story back to the confrontation at Canossa, the reader has a keen sense of how extraordinary it was for the head of the German Reich to submit to the pope.

But, as the title suggests, there are other themes as well. The events that led up to the showdown between pope and king took place against the backdrop of the approaching millennium. Kings and queens, monks and bishops, soldiers and peasants, all lived with fear and foreboding of what was to come. The abbot Adso told a terrified Saxon queen that “the times we live in being what they are, there is no topic of more pressing urgency.” Gregory and Henry lived long after the year 1000, of course, but the medievals were much less mathematical about the actual date of their millennium than we were about ours. Talk of the end of days began in the middle of the tenth century and continued well into the eleventh. To some, the precise date was 1033, the one-thousandth anniversary of Christ’s passion. In contrast to some modern scholars who dismiss the “false terrors of the year one thousand,” Holland shows that dread of the approaching end was palpable in the lives of the men and women of that epoch.

Although the advent of the millennium colored the way events were seen in the days leading up to the year 1000 and the days that followed, Holland is less interested in what people thought about the impending catastrophe than he is in the transformation of medieval society that was taking place. He provides, for example, a fine section on the early history of France as the western part of the old Carolingian empire gradually disengaged itself from the rule of the new line of kings and emperors in the German lands. In the tenth century, the peoples of Europe already had begun to identify themselves as belonging to nations; each was a “people joined together by a single descent, custom, language, and law,” as one abbot defined the word natio . Holland also offers illuminating passages on characteristic European institutions. These include the castlean edifice designed not so much as a residence for princes and dukes as a tool of aggression and a vehicle to intimidate the local populationand, in an unromantic portrayal, the perks of being a knight: “food, accommodation, and the chance to kick people around.”

This is not a narrowly Western book. Holland never lets the reader forget that as events were unfolding in Germany and Italy, Muslim corsairs were threatening southern Europe, occupying Sicily and southern Italy for a time. And the Byzantine Empire, although weakened, was still a force to be reckoned with. From the perspectives of Cordoba and Constantinople, the German emperor was a “boorish irrelevance.” Compared with the splendor of Constantinople and the refined culture of Muslim Spain, the German empire, without a major city as its capital, was a cultural and economic backwater.

Although his narrative seems, at times, to wander, Holland never loses sight of his goal: to show that the tumultuous events of the tenth and eleventh centuries were portents of a new beginning. In the startling words of a monk in the eleventh century, “The new should change the oldand the old, if it has no contribution to make to the order of things, should be utterly jettisoned.” If, at the millennium, the end did not arrive, and Christ did not come to establish his rule, it seemed that some, at least, were determined to establish it for him.

Still, this was a world in disorder that was ruled by ambition and the sword. Popes, bishops, and abbots often were treated as vassals of kings and emperors, serving as their ministers and carrying out their commands. The Church of Rome was dependent on the support of brutal and violent princes. When, in 996, the German king Otto III learned that the pope had died, he did not even bother to enact the charade of a papal election. Instead, Otto imposed his own candidate, his cousin Bruno, a twenty-four-year-old Saxon. Henry III, the father of the Henry of Canossa, removed popes with impunity.

Both the father and grandfather of Henry IV had been crowned emperor by popes, and Henry IV assumed that he would receive the same honor. But this Henry had to deal with a different kind of pope. Gregory VII was, in the words of a contemporary, “like the raging of the east wind, which buffets with violent blasts.” The confrontation between Henry and Gregory came to a head over the matter of investiture, the ancient right of kings to confer the symbols of their office on bishops. Henry refused to obey the pope’s prohibition against investiture, and a showdown became inevitable. When Henry overplayed his hand, his only choice, in the end, was to make the journey to Canossa to seek absolution from the pope. That was not the end of things, however. After Henry returned home from his penitential journey, political events fell his wayhis chief rival diedand Henry arrogantly nominated an antipope, Clement III, who dutifully crowned Henry as emperor, in Rome. But the new emperor had to flee when Norman armies arrived to sack and burn the city. Pope Gregory died a prisoner of the Normans, believing the world was in the grip of the Antichrist.

Holland tells this story in vivid and colorful detail, and although Gregory is its hero, the book does not end with his death. Holland continues the narrative into the reign of Gregory’s successor, Urban II, a former monk of Cluny. In 1095, Urban traveled back to France to visit his old monastery and consecrate a great new church that had been built in his absence. In France, at a council in Clermont, Urban announced that he would address the Christian people in an open field. It was there that he called for what became the First Crusade. In Urban’s mind the reform so vigorously pursued by Gregory would not be fully completed until the Holy Sepulchre was wrested from the control of the Muslims. The crowds shouted “God wills it,” and enthusiasm spread across Europe. Soon Europe was on the march toward Jerusalem.

Holland does not aim to tell the story of the Crusades again, nor does he want to enter into the tiresome debate about the stain they supposedly left on the conscience of the West. By linking Urban’s call for a crusade with the controversy over investiture, he wishes to show that at the time of the millennium, the Christian world was bubbling with new energy. In Spain the Reconquista began, and the Christian king Alfonso regained Toledo. In eastern Anatolia the Byzantines began to push back the Turks and regain much of the territory that was lost in 1071 at the battle of Manzikert.

And so the book ends in Jerusalemnot the heavenly city that was to come down from the heavens at the end of days but the earthly city that overlooked the Judean desert: “The arrival of the Crusaders before the walls of the Holy City was merely a singlealbeit the most spectacularmanifestation of a process which since the convulsive period of the Millennium, had made of Europe something restless, and dynamic, and wholly new.”

At the start of his book, Holland quotes the words of Hilaire Belloc, the English Catholic writer and apologist: “The Faith is Europe. And Europe is the faith.” This sentiment seems quaint today, and one wonders what Holland has in mind in placing it before his readers. With each passing decade, Christian Europe becomes a more distant memory, as the future of Christianity increasingly seems to lie elsewhere.

Yet Holland’s central point is well taken. Something genuinely novel did come out of the medieval conflict between pope and king, and the initiative came from the Church’s leaders and thinkers, not Europe’s temporal rulers. Gregory VII was the bearer of a tradition that reached back to the gospels (“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”), to Ambrose and Augustine, and to Pope Gelasius, who said that the “two principles” that give order to the worldpolitical authority and spiritual authoritywere distinct.

This was the gift of the West.

ROBERT LOUIS WILKEN , a member of the editorial advisory board of First Things , is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity Emeritus at the University of Virginia.