LITTLE, BROWN £25 (476pp) £22.50 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect