At the conclusion of his The Birth of the West, Paul Collins argues the necessity of “‘grand narratives to help us gain perspective on where we are now.” He goes on to assert that even though he himself has no desire to live in a “global, secularist, multicultural, post-Christian society. . . , we will still need to recall, acknowledge, and integrate the past.” If we forget, he argues, “where we came from, we will simply drift into the future with nothing to offer it” (426-27).
His book is one attempt to present and explain the past with particular emphasis on the tenth century, a period when in the political upheaval created by the fragmentation of the Carolingian empire, we see the roots of the political entities we recognize today as the various countries of Europe. This is a challenging task. The work’s subtitle Rome, Germany, France, and the Creation of Europe in the Tenth Century gives some hint of his organizing strategy. He divides the book into five sections: The City and the World, The World in Chaos, The Second Spring (two chapters focussing heavily on the periods of Otto II and Otto III), Living in the Tenth Century, and The Millennial Vision. Chapters within these five parts then look at such topics as “The Nadir of the Papacy,” “The Dissension of Kings,” or “Gerbert: The Magician of the Millennium” and so forth. He also includes chapters on Anglo-Saxon England, on “The Celtic Lands: Ireland, Scotland, and Wales,” and on “Muslims and Christians in Spain.”
While this kind of organizational strategy certainly helps the reader process all the information, it also means that at times Collins is perhaps unavoidably repetitive, a situation which he acknowledges. Something that I would have liked to have seen in the book in addition to the various maps and family trees that are included would have been a time chart indicating just who was doing what, where, and when. With such a chart, I think I would have found it just a little easier to put local events and personalities into the larger European context.
As I said in the earlier post, Collins writes a lucid, even conversational at times, prose, but his leanings towards informality do not mean that the book does not show evidence of copious research. He includes quite lengthy bibliographies of both primary and secondary sources, so the book would supply a good starting point for further research in this period if one so desired.
For me, one of the particularly thought-provoking aspects of The Birth of the West is his chapter on the relationship between Moorish Spain and the rest of Christendom. Collins is concerned that “a caricature has emerged in some contemporary popular historical writing and in TV history shows” (201) in their presentation of al-Andalus as a sophisticated tolerant society in contrast with a superstitious Christian Europe. His discussion of the nature of feudalism was also of interest to me, especially in his references to the work of Susan Reynolds who argues that the term feudalism is a meaningless, misleading construct invented to make sense out of the confused mass of medieval documentation we have inherited” (Collins 322).
Collins is a little more “traditional” in his presentation of the Roman Catholic Church as offering a unifying and civilising force within Europe. In fact, he asserts “the church was the cohesive driver that bound together the disparate elements that make up our cultural inheritance and was the energy that drove the process forward” (426). However, he does not hold back from discussing the many abuses and instances of corruption within the church hierarchy of the time. Nor is he afraid of criticizing those clerics such as Pietro Damiani whom he describes as “hysterical” (310) and “fanatic” (389) in his attitude towards possible homosexuality. He is just as critical of our own “genitally obsessed, post-Freudian world” (389). I think it would be fair to say I found Collins to be humane and balanced in his treatment of the church. However, I did find it very interesting that so many practices and“dogmas” that we now associate with Roman Catholicism such as an unmarried clergy, or the position of women within the church hierarchy, or the actual role or status of the Bishop of Rome as supreme pontiff have evolved since the tenth century, but there is no room in this review to discuss the whole politics of religion and within religion.
Perhaps what is most engaging about the book is the way that Collins evokes some of the personalities of the time particularly the Empress Theophano, mother of Otto III, her mother-in-law Adelheid, and the various Abbesses of convents such as Gandersheim. One receives a sense of very powerful, highly educated, articulate, and politically astute women. One also shares Collins’ interest in Gerbert of Aurillac “undoubtedly one of the greatest polymaths in European history” (363), and in Liutprand of Cremona.
At the end of the book, I am left with a sense of a world that although very different from our own but is also very similar: after all, power struggles, nepotism, and financial corruption seem not unfamiliar to anyone who watches international news with any frequency. One can also see in the events and personalities of the tenth century our own recent and current times foreshadowed. I do think that in understanding our roots we have more chance of understanding and building our future. I tend to agree with Collins, therefore, that we are “caught up in a cultural amnesia” (426). His book offers at least one opportunity to remedy that situation.