Book Review: Birth Of The West

Birth Of The West:  Rome, Germany, France, And The Creation Of Europe In The Tenth Century, by Paul Collins

This is an easy book to like, although it is not a very well-organized book it must be admitted.  The author talks about the West being born out of the end of Late Antiquity in the conflict between Christendom and its neighbors and the internal conflicts that existed in the post-imperial world.  This is in general a pretty sound idea, and the author certainly has a point in looking at Western society as being strongly influenced by Catholicism on the one hand as well as imitatio imperii on the part of civil governments.  The author does not in any way sugarcoat the ugliness or brutality of society at the time, but also shows the way that some intelligent people were able to preserve enough culture that society as a whole was able to overcome the collapse of organized rule over much of Western Europe.  The result is an appealing work that is somewhat rambling but at the same time something that also is full of a lot of intriguing stories that are well worth reading and reflecting upon and that does not overstay its welcome.

This book is more than 400 pages long, five parts, with eighteen chapters.  The book begins with a discussion of the Viking fury and how it was remembered in a prologue.  After that the author discusses the relationship between Rome and the world around it (I), with chapters on the physical landscape of the tenth century (1), powerful Roman women (2), and the nadir of the papacy in the face of domination by local thugs (3).  The author discusses the European world in chaos (II), with chapters on the enemies of Christians (4), the disagreements and rivalries between kings (5), salvation from savagery (6), France (7), Spain (8), England (9), and the Celtic lands of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales (10) and how all of those realms dealt with the question of authority and self-defense.  The author discusses the second spring of the Ottonian revival (III) with chapters on the work of the polymath Liutprand of Cremona (11) as well as the efforts of Theophano and Otto II (12) to increase the standing of Germany.  The author looks at life in the tenth century (IV) with chapters on monks and nuns (13), ordinary people (14), and faith and the church (15).  Finally, the book ends with a millennial vision (V) that involves Gerbert (16), the reign of Otto III (17), and the coming of the end of the First Christian millennium (18), after which there are acknowledgements, a couple of family trees, abbreviations, notes, bibliographies, and an index.

The author focuses on the birth of the West in the creation of a multi-state Europe and it is curious to hear him admit his own particular advocacy of certain elements (like the Roman Catholic Church) being essential to European identity.  The author does at least point out that a lot of elements were involved in the creation of Europe.  Literacy that was largely preserved through religious education was connected with the politics of central governments struggling to control their areas while also having to deal with complex internal and external military threats are not necessarily unfamiliar to those who have read about the early Middle Ages.  That said, even if this book tells a somewhat familiar tale of what happened after Rome fell but before the Crusades and later periods brought Europe to the attention of the world, it is a tale that is told with a lot of humanity and a lot of affection for many of the people involved, and the author is wise to critically look at the sources involved.  It is remarkable just how few sources there are to examine when it comes to certain areas of history and certain time periods, and of course how slanted those sources that survive are, demonstrative of the biases that have always been present in perspectives.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Christianity, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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