Making Sense of Medieval History

A new book about 10th-century Europe brushes past evidence that might complicate its narrative.


The Birth of the West: Rome, Germany, France, and the Creation of Europe in the Tenth Century, by Paul Collins, PublicAffairs, 484 pages, $29.99.

Take five or six soap operas set in central and western Europe in the 10th century. Chop in pieces, stir, and glue together more or less at random. You now have something reasonably close to the picture that emerges from The Birth of the West, 427 pages of 10-century history as presented by the Australian author and broadcaster Paul Collins. The reader is left wondering whether the chaos is a bug or a feature, a failure of the author to shape his material into a coherent story or a deliberate attempt to show the reader the chaos of the period.

Collins does have a thesis, indeed two. The first is that "it was precisely from the chaos of the tenth century that the Western world in which we now live was born." The second is that it was the revival of central government, replacing feudal chaos with states capable of maintaining order, that brought some substantial level of peace and security to societies plagued by external and internal violence.

"The early tenth century dawned in volence and disorder," Collins writes. "All effective government had broken down. People lived in fear and chaos. Vikings launched raids with impunity, Saracen Muslim pirates terrorized the Italian coastline seeking slaves, the Magyars (Hungarians) terrorized much of Germany and over the alps into Italy, and the breakdown of central government meant that ordinary people across Western Europe, but particularly in France, often lived in terror of local nobles, who were really just thugs….Yet by the end of the century, order had been restored in Germany, owing almost entirely to the recently converted Saxons, who were the first to bring some political organization to the heartland of Europe. In fact, this book's subtitle might well have been 'How the Germans Saved Civilization' by restoring a working central government."

To his credit, Collins makes it clear that his working central government was not very central, that "power in medieval society was noncentralized, consensual, and consultative, even if the consent was limited to the more powerful"—in short, that it was what other historians would describe as feudal, a term he disapproves of for somewhat unclear reasons.

Considered as a collection of historical facts, the book is informative, although slow reading. So far as his theses go, I find the first close to meaningless. Collins focuses on the Holy Roman Empire, which one could, with some stretch, view as the nucleus of the later states of central and eastern Europe. But the close of the 10th century saw the Byzantine Empire still very much a going concern, a substantial chunk of Europe in which classical antiquity had not yet ended. Spain was still mostly under Muslim rule, and Italy would remain a geographical expression for another eight centuries and more. The papacy, later to become a central institution of medieval Europe, was a joke, St. Peter's throne belonging to whomever the Roman clans, or some powerful figure in northern Italy, or the Holy Roman Emperor when he got around to bringing an army south through the Alpine passes, happened to favor at the moment. Collins describes in detail the papacy's most exotic scene, when a dead pope's body was exhumed by his successor to be tried for heresy.

The western world we know was born in the 10th century. Or the eighth. Or the 14th. Or perhaps…

The second thesis is more interesting. By the end of the 10th century, the problem of Viking, Magyar, and Saracen raids had been largely eliminated, but it is not clear how much of the credit should go to the rise of central government in general or to the heroes of Collins' story—the Saxon dynasty of Holy Roman Emperors—in particular. A skeptical reader will notice that Ireland, with nothing close to a central government, was at least as successful against the Vikings as France or the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. What ended the raids, assuming one does not count Harald Hardrada's failed invasion of England in 1066 or Canute's successful one a little earlier, was not the rise of the Holy Roman Empire but the conversion of Scandinavia to Christianity. As to the Saracens, Collins has to deal with the fact that it was William, Count of Arles, allied with a number of other feudal lords, who destroyed the base from which Saracens had been raiding pilgrims crossing the alpine passes to Rome, and not Otto I. Collins gamely explains that William only did it to prevent the German emperor from doing it first.

The most interesting thing about the book may be what it implies about how much we do not know. Thus, for instance, Collins offers a lurid account of Theodora and Marizia, a mother and daughter heavily involved in papal politics. (Marizia was supposedly the mistress at age 14 of an 80-year-old pope.) He then mentions that his source was writing 50 years after the events he describes, that another source presents a much more attractive picture, and that both have axes to grind. But he goes on to treat the first account as accurate. He offers a glowing portrait of Theophano, a Byzantine princess who became the wife of Otto II and mother of Otto III, dismissing a much more critical picture from a contemporary source. A historian with a different set of biases could have given us an equally convincing version in which some of the good guys and bad guys switched hats.

Collins does not like feudal lords and routinely refers to them as thugs without ever making it clear in what way they were more thuggish than the rulers of larger polities, such as Charlemagne, who in 782 massacred more than 4,500 Saxon warriors after they had surrendered, or Basil II, the Byzantine emperor who blinded 10,000 Bulgarians. He tells us that Gerbert of Aurillac, scholar and pope, was "the greatest genius" of his age and "one of the greatest polymaths in Western European History," but Collins provides little support for this beyond Gerbert's role in introducing Arabic numerals to Christian Europe and the fact that he believed the world was spherical—a view shared, although Collins does not say so, by essentially every educated European of the previous 800 years. Liutbrand, like Collins a fan of the Saxon dynasty of emperors, is "without doubt the greatest Latinist and writer of the tenth century" and "the tenth century's first really 'international' man."

While Collins concedes that some slavery still existed in Europe—he does not mention that the Domesday book lists about a tenth of the population of England as slaves—he portrays it as primarily a Muslim practice, implying but not quite saying that the word "slave" derived from "Slav" due to Muslim enslavement of Slavs, when in fact it derives from Christian enslavement. He claims that the idea of spreading religion by the sword only got to Europe from Islam in the 11th century, conveniently forgetting just how it was that the ancestors of his Saxon emperors became Christian in the eighth and ninth.

Collins presents the conventional view of the dominant role of religion in medieval Europe, cites several books by the French medievalist Georges Duby, but not the one in which Duby argues that the picture is badly distorted by the fact that almost all of our sources are clerical. The point is relevant for modern sources as well: Collins himself spent much of his life as a Catholic priest before resigning over a dispute with the Vatican and taking up a second career as writer and broadcaster.

None of that means that the story he tells is wrong. The modern reader inclined to take any single historical view as gospel might consider how much disagreement there is on issues for which we have enormously better information—the Vietnam War, say, or the evaluation of controversial political figures such as FDR, Reagan, or Thatcher. It does not even mean that the book should have been written differently. The story Collins tells is confusing enough as is; it would be far more confusing if he had tried to keep all of the alternative narratives going at once. And, to his credit, while he tells a single story, he makes it clear that alternatives exist—almost all of my critical comments are based on information he himself presents. I would not recommend the book as light reading, but it does provide a vivid picture of the century.

And it leaves me wondering whether Liutprand's Antapodosis, "a chronicle of intrigue, scandal and revenge in which nothing is private or hidden," is available in English translation.