Review: The Forge of Christendom by Tom Holland

Tom Holland’s latest book is about the slow recovery of Western Europe between 900 and 1100 AD, a period that he sees as the beginning of Western Europe’s transformation from a decaying and dilapidated backwater to the mastery of the world. Tom Holland clearly thinks Christianity had much to do with this rise and presents the violent elimination of paganism in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe as positive achievements of the age. This is mostly done not by direct editorializing; it is done by using the language of the invading Christians (not as quotes from ancient books but as the text of the book itself) to describe the pagans. What the pagans thought of this transformation is rarely mentioned or is explicitly presented as a quote, not as the author’s own text.

He sort of claims that this great transformation had something to do with rising apocalyptic expectations about the end of the first Christian Millennium, the disappointment of which was followed by the channelization of these energies into this-worldly revival and expansion. He does not really prove this hypothesis and it may be that it is mostly a device to frame the book and is not taken completely seriously by Tom Holland himself. Certainly I more or less ignored it while reading the book and you can get some value out of the book without paying this theory any mind either.

(The book’s Amazon.com intro presents this as the central thesis of the book: “At the approach of the first millennium, the Christians of Europe did not seem likely candidates for future greatness. Weak, fractured, and hemmed in by hostile nations, they saw no future beyond the widely anticipated Second Coming of Christ. But when the world did not end, the peoples of Western Europe suddenly found themselves with no choice but to begin the heroic task of building a Jerusalem on earth.” I did not find it convincing and I think you can ignore it too). That said, the book is still fun to read. Tom Holland always wants to make history fun, to tell stories, to quote contemporary accounts and to paint vivid pictures of life in those times. He is always interesting, but the reader will have to read other books to find out if the slant presented here is the most reasonable one or if Mr Holland is letting his storytelling side (or his Christian/English side) dictate how events and characters are presented.

There is definitely an element of subtly (and occasionally not-so-subtly) challenging the more “woke” interpretations of history that are currently popular in some elite Western universities. He wants the readers to see Christianity (specifically Catholicism) as an overall force for good (separation of church and state, suppression of elite violence, etc) and as an important source of cultural unity, growth and creativity in those troubled time. He is not necessarily wrong about this, but he rarely makes a solid evidence-based case case (with alternative views systematically evaluated and rejected) for his preferences, relying instead on eloquence and (selective?) presentation to convince the reader.

If you don’t mind (or already approve of) his Christian and “Eurocentric” viewpoint, this is the book for you. Even if you do mind, it is a very entertaining read, full of zany anecdotes and interesting factoids. A reasonably good overview of the age and worth a read. But it will be a good idea to read other books about the period before you decide that the trends were exactly as described in this book.

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9 Replies to “Review: The Forge of Christendom by Tom Holland”

  1. The spread of Western Christianity has been violent once it became official religion in the declining Roman empire. Before that, it sustained itself by stories of martyrs and innocent Christians eaten alive by lions by the orders of Roman emperor or his minions. WC gave this penchant for violent spread to all it’s spin off successor ideologies like Nationalism, colonialism , Marxism, Liberalism .

    In contrast, Greek orthodox and Russian Orthodox Christianities did not have that much hunger to spread themselves and all they wanted was to cling to state power.

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  2. I haven’t red the book but I can imagine what would be the Catholics perspective. The first millennium (plus ancient history) in Europe was heavily falsified by Vatican, the most of that was done backwards in the 17th c.AC. West Roman Empire collapsed while East Roman Empire persisted for another 1000 years. Vatican invented the term Byzantine (actually the village close to Constantinople) to hide the name (and heritage) of Roman Empire. They invented migration of so-called Slavs (another artificial term from the 7th cAC), actually Serbs, because no Slavs existed at that time. I don’t know which (East European and Scandinavian) pagans were mentioned in the book but it is not difficult to guess who they were. It is enough to see genetic map to know. This is a period when millions of Serbs were killed and converted to Catholicism (e.g. Germans, Polish). They have stolen 3000 years of Serbian history. They hide in their treasures proofs that Serbs were indigenous people in Europe, that (Etruscans) founded Rome and western civilisation.

    Catholics church became a mafia like organisation with inerrable leader which provided logistics for enslavery of people around the world. There were crusaders, Inquisition, Jesuits, missionary. They sponsored genocides in Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia and robbery of their resources. This politics is still ongoing. They hate Orthodox Christians because they remained faithful to the original Christianity tenets and because they are witnesses of their transformation. The constant of their politics is a destruction of Orthodoxy and all today’s Russofobia is a consequence of this.

    They are now a big corporation with long-term business strategy, banks, financials, investments, marketing, own judiciary, media, public relations, political parties, the largest real estate, secret service, with Jesuits as their steel fist for conquering new territories. They are state within the state. India is one of their targets and prospective markets.

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    1. Totally . Its strange that the author thinks 900 to 1100 as revival years. Probably the status quo (vis-v islam) during those years and win against pagan eastern European and Scandinavian is what he is hinting at. In the East apart from some wins in Levant and some clawing back in Iberia by the Christians, nothing much else. Apart from that loosing Anatolia to Seljuks around the end as well. Probably Orthodox ‘s losses are not taken into account.

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    2. Haven’t read the book, it could be about the cultural and spiritual coherence of europe manifesting. The holy roman empire was a thing and people speak of the carolingian renaissance. Not long after the turn of the millennium you have the high middle ages and the rediscovery of antiquity through arabic and greek texts precedes the beginning of the italian renaissance by many centuries. Great things take time!

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  3. I thought that Razib wrote this review without looking at this carefully, and boy, was I surprised. Because I read the book and thought that the author was reaching in the idea of Christianity as the new rationale for the continent’s awakening populace.

    The overwhelming feature of 1000 AD is the arrival of Medieval warm period, when the Northern Europe warmed up by a few deg C. This had impact on the Vikings who quickly settled in the northern parts of France, and then into England by 1066. Earlier the sons of Charlemagne had spread and divided Italy and France among themselves, while destroying large parts of the culture. My belief is that the driver towards European forces as mercenaries for Manzikert and later at 1096 in the first crusades were the climate change-driven Vikings, with Normans and English in tow. There is no clear evidence that the Vikings had absorbed all of the Christianity in under 50 years and had moved all the way to Jerusalem based on ideas. May be they were just mobile hunter gatherers looking for new pastures to conquer.

    I am not questioning the idea that in the next few centuries Christianity became a driver of European identity but 10-11th century, it was still nascent.

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  4. i’ve seen holland interviewed. he seems to think christianity is fundamentally different from eastern religions or islam, and something he feels a personal liberal european affinity with despite not being a believer. i don’t think you can shake him from this intuition, which is a new one.

    i am open to this idea, but skeptical.

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    1. I agree with his view, many liberal non believing hindus/non hindus in India too feel a certain affinity towards hinduism eclecticism (sociologist Ashish Nandy ) which they transfuse into “Indian” identity as well. Recently during the whole article 377 LGBT thing, one of my muslim friend who is gay posted on twitter pics of Khajuraho and other hindu temples portraying gay sex, saying “we Indians” were never like this and look what the British did to us. There is a subconscious attachment even among non believers with all things Hinduism and Indian.

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  5. I agree with his view, many liberal non believing hindus/non hindus in India too feel a certain affinity towards hinduism eclecticism (sociologist Ashish Nandy ) which they transfuse into “Indian” identity as well. Recently during the whole article 377 LGBT thing, one of my muslim friend who is gay posted on twitter pics of Khajuraho and other hindu temples portraying gay sex, saying “we Indians” were never like this and look what the British did to us. There is a subconscious attachment even among non believers with all things Hinduism and Indian.

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