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.

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  1. Wow, I’m surprised. No “isn’t anarchy great” push here? Whats-a-matter-for-you today? I thought the big Anarchist Idea was that old Europe was great — before the re-emergence of central government.

    Well, maybe except for that one little detail that so many western historians seems to not quite fully notice. Something along the lines of this (for which I grant credit).

    But the close of the 10th century saw the Byzantine Empire still very much a going concern…

    Somehow, the old anarchist-Europe-was-better idea misses the fact that if it weren’t for those horribly “statist” Byzantines, and the armies they fielded, the Muslims in all probability would have rolled right over Europe. And western history as we know it would have taken a very different turn.

    Oh, never mind.


    1. “a very different turn.” would not necessarily have been a worse turn. It was the Muslims who preserved much of the knowledge that eventually led to the Renaissance. Also, for much of history, the Islamic world was much less anti-Jewish than Christiandam. This changed of course with the creation of the modern state of Israel. I am not convinced it would have been the end of the world if that had happened.

      1. thought the Irish monks saved civilization…oh wait that was another book/theory.

    2. That’s highly doubtful.

      Mediterranean / Persian plateau empires make logistical and climatological sense.

      An empire starting in the Med / Persian region and expanding up any farther north than Hungary makes no sense.

      And never happened, as a result.

      If the Rome of Augustus didn’t expand into Germany, the northern Balkans, Poland, or the Dnieper region, the Islamic caliphate wasn’t going to do it either. The Mongols maybe could have gotten it done, by sheer momentum and not giving a damn about their lines of communication, but the Caliphate? Doubtful.

      1. Yeah Cuz Latin America isn’t christian so it would be impossible for Europe to convert to Islam…

        Oh wait

    3. In the tenth century, the collapse of the Abbasids (and the infighting that followed) probably had more to do with hindering Islamic expansion than anything else. there were some substantial stretches in there where the Byzantines could barely hold Constantinople, much less fight off a determined invasion. Even if they fell, the turks would still have had to cut their way through the Magyars at a time when they were overextended just trying to hold onto asia minor.

      I am also surprised by all the love Gerbert d’Aurillac is getting lately. His effort to introduce the hindu number system into europe was ill-conceived and failed badly. Many of his contemporaries thought he was a sorcerer.

      1. I am also surprised by all the love Gerbert d’Aurillac is getting lately.

        This is the sentence of the day.

        It’s like he’s a Kardashian or something.

        Nerd props. (flashes gang sign)

        1. Get Fred Armisen or Bill Hader to deliver that sentence.

    4. What, we would have been ruled by Mongols after they finished sacking the Muslims?

      1. Those who sacked the Muslims have themselves been sacked.

  2. Scandal! reason comes out in favor of roads.

  3. In fact, this book’s subtitle might well have been ‘How the Germans Saved Civilization’ by restoring a working central government.”

    You know who else…

    1. Bismarck?

      1. no, he saved the donuts…

    2. As I recall, it was not until the 19th Century that Germany, as we now know it, was actually unified as a single state. It was only after the popularization of Gaius Cornelius Tacitus’ Germania that caused a “unifying spirit” of the German people. “Germany” did not have a single accepted dialect for most of “German” history.

      1. “Germany? But where is it? I cannot find that country.” — Goethe and Schiller

      2. You’re exagerrating in the wrong direction. Even in the 15th Century the Germanic dialect speaking inhabitants of the Holy Roman Empire had a fairly strong sense of themselves as “Germans”. German national identity was probably stronger (and probably still is) than national feeling in a country like Spain where Catalans, Galicians, Valencians, etc. were forced together under one Castilian ruler, but fought hard against becoming “Spanish”. Luther created a written language in the 16th century that became the accepted dialect for intra-German communication, and basically remains the accepted dialect to this day.

      1. Darth Moll?

    3. The Scorpions?

    4. Udo Dirksneider?

  4. OK wow that makes a lot of sense when you think about it.


  5. And if you disagree with the author, an enraged Frank will ride up, revile you and beat your brains out with an axe.

  6. Central governments as we know them really rose in the late 14th and 15the centuries. The 10th gave us strong kings but not strong governments. When you had a good king like Henry II who kept the peace and the barons in line things were good. But it was dependent on one man. When you had a bad or a weak king like Edward II everything went to hell because there was the institutions of central government just the man and the title.

    1. So 10th century = Top. Men.

      Let’s try that again in the 21st century and see how it works!

  7. The second is that it was the revival of central government, replacing feudal chaos

    This statement is laughably ahistoric.

    The only area with a strong central government was the Byzantine Empire which was in the middle of multi-century decline.

  8. “””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.””‘

    And Islam was doing it in the 7th century.

  9. Italy would remain a geographical expression for another eight centuries and more.

    Please explain. Thank you.

    1. It wasn’t a country, it was just a place.

      1. Ah, thank you.

        1. Is it still a country; I thought it was just a geographical IOU?

          1. Italy…germanic for “land of many governments’

    2. It’s a quote attributed to Metternich.

      The point being that, until the second half of the 19th century, there was no such state as Italy.

  10. Metternich’s “geographic expression’ was coined in the 19h century to accentuate Italy’s place in the power politics of that time – basically, weak and fragmented and a pawn.

    After the fall of Rome, Italy was but a collection of warring city-states meant to be a trophy in the consolidated powers’ collective cases. Nonetheless, those regions (mostly in Northern Italy) helped propel Europe out of the Middle-Ages into the “Modern age.” Renaissance blah, blah…

    Ever notice the claims how the Irish or Germans or whoever else “saved Western Civilization?”

    Heck, the Poles played a key role by pushing off the Mongols no? Or the Austrians against the Arabs?

    Anyway, A LOT of shit was happening after the Fall of Rome. They say trade dried up, yet Italian merchants were trading with Russian and Eastern traders on the Volga in the 10th and 11th centuries. There was action – more than we think.

    I studied Medieval history and will likely pick this book up.

    Just as a “side” point. Liberals are obsessed with the Crusades. The way they interpret it – mostly to prove how bad religion and Christianity was/is – has always been a point of humor for me it’s so shallow.

    1. It drives me insane when the Crusades are used as a crux of an argument by the left. They will listen to evidence or examine causation ever. It is always; but, but, but the Crusades….

      Of course their is the ever stalwart fallback that they throw out when you least expect it; THE SPANISH INQUISITION!!

      Have you seen the proglodyte’s new tangent on the 2nd Amendment?
      It was only created to put down slave revolt contrary to zero citation. ergo it is the evil white man who needs it.

      1. They Will (sic) should read They will not.

      2. Wow and their should be there.
        Bad day for me.

        1. You have to say Cruuuusaddds like one would Booooosh before inserting it into a socialist argument. I typically see the Crusades mentioned crudely to counter modern day Christian morality agendas. The connection is so vague that I’ve never actually been able to discern what point they’re making? Perhaps they see some corollary with morality being made Law and then the use of force; but that doesn’t support the Socialist agenda to use force to support their own morality agendas. So they offer an argument that undermines their own Statism. Are socialists making a deeper criticism and connection between crusades and the Christian Right than what I’m seeing?

  11. Yeah, the revised takes on the 2nd amendement are spooky scary.

    It’s all done to prove how crazy white men are today.

    Dipshit Morgan is doing his best to prove that point. Who fucking cares pizza shop owners are giving pizza discounts for gun owners? Are they killing people? Breaking the law? What’s the god damn problem? His arrogance in trying to paint those people are crazies is too much for me.

    Love when they lose it on the Spanish Inquisition. It’s like they’re incapable of nuanced views on history. Catholicism doesn’t allow contraception = bad. Inquisition = proof Christianity is evil.

    But the state and the murders it commits and the way it enables people, that gets little attention though.

    1. Luckily, some liberals did push back against this loony idea. I’m not one who believes that only PhDs should be allowed to comment on history (or science or literature or whatever), but Thom Hartmann — the talk show host who popularized the idea — was clearly out of his depth when he was formulating the wacky “militias == slave patrols” meme.

    2. As we all know Ancient pagan Europe was a Utopia of peace.

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  15. I discovered that the answer to my final question is that not only Antapodosis, but all of Liutprand’s surviving writing, can be found in:

    _The Complete Works Of Luidprand of Cremona_, Paolo Squatriti tr., available from Amazon.

  16. Alien Invader writes:

    “Somehow, the old anarchist-Europe-was-better idea misses the fact that if it weren’t for those horribly “statist” Byzantines, and the armies they fielded, the Muslims in all probability would have rolled right over Europe.”

    It seems to me that, insofar as the historical evidence is relevant, it points in precisely the opposite direction. The Muslims did roll over the Byzantine Empire, although it took them a while to do it.

    At the other end of Christendom, they encountered the Merovingians, who stopped their advance. And by 1492, less than fifty years after Constantinople fell, the feudal Spanish, divided most of the time into multiple kingdoms, had pushed the Muslims out of western Europe.

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