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Millennium, By Tom Holland

A blaze of colour lights up the 'Dark Ages'

Since we stopped reading Gibbon, we know all too little about the centuries between the Romans and the Normans. Tom Holland sets out to fill it with a book that is far more accessible to moderns, but awesome in the authorities it has consulted. How many historians writing for the general public treat them to quotations from the sixth-century Pope Gregory I as well as Gibbon?

The book is a logical follow-on from Holland's history of the Roman republic, Rubicon. Its useful timeline begins with the crucifixion of Jesus and ends with the fall of Jerusalem (to crusaders from western Europe) in 1099. But the principal story is that of the see-sawing of power between church and state. It culminated in the medieval division between the temporal and spiritual spheres, symbolised by Henry IV's prostration of himself before Pope Gregory IV at Canossa in 1076. Its finale is their decision to unite against the growing power of Islam, shockingly evinced by the sacking of the shrine of St James of Compostella in 997 and the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in 1007.

The action really starts with the convenient "discovery" in the late eighth century of the Donation of Constantine, a document by which the fourth-century emperor had supposedly given wide authority to the Bishop of Rome: "a programme to whet the appetites of warlords as well as scholars, and to send men into battle beneath the fluttering of banners". Arch-banner-flutterer was the Frankish king Charlemagne, the most powerful ruler the West had known for centuries and the first to be hailed as priest and king.

As power shifts from Franks to Saxons to Norsemen, rulers and churchmen are toppled in a dizzying succession of violent deaths. Holland has a knack of characterising them forcefully. Leo III is "a born fighter", who manages to grab victory from defeat, jumping out of the wings of St Peter's during the Christmas Mass of 800 with the crown of the Caesars to make sure that it was the head of the church who crowned Charlemagne as Emperor.

Although Holland prefers rampaging dukes and intellectualising clerics to social trends and economic causation, he does touch on such matters. In the 990s, the "notoriously savage" Fulke the Black, Count of Anjou, introduced castles, originally Italian defences against Saracens, into France as tools of aggression. Chivalry saw its origins in the mounted shocktroops of their occupants; feudalism in the subjection of the peasants around them.

Holland's book keeps Jerusalem firmly at the centre of his story (just as medieval maps always did). But he also roams to the borders of Christendom, bringing alive the less familiar worlds of the Islamic Caliphate of Al-Andalus in Spain and the quite extraordinary energy of the Vikings – lords in Normandy, Italy and Sicily, Russia and Byzantium. It is salutary too for Britons to see 1066 put into a European context. Perhaps most fascinating of all is Holland's drawing of the great Abbey of Cluny as a key player in the balance of power between church and state.

Holland excels at narration, never jogging when he can gallop, using generous quotations to convey the mindset of centuries hagridden with millennial rumours of the end of the world. His highly individual road map to the hitherto "dark ages" is written with forceful – and convincing – panache.

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