THE FORGE OF CHRISTENDOM: THE END OF DAYS AND THE EPIC RISE OF THE WEST
by TOM HOLLAND
Doubleday, 476 pages, $30
IN 1872, CHANCELLOR Otto von Bismarck stood before the German Reichstag and declared, "We shall not go to Canossa." By calling up the image of the German king Henry IV standing barefoot in the snow at Canossa in 1077, seeking absolution from Pope Gregory VII, Bismarck served notice that he would not let any later pope stand in the way of the development of a modern German nation. Under Bismarck's rule, Germany was determined that the Catholic Church would not meddle in German affairs of state.
A double irony exists in this: For centuries, the European states had been more eager to manage the affairs of the Church than the Church had been to intrude in civil matters. Moreover, the very notion that Church and state were two independent realms, one secular and one spiritual, was a consequence of the revolution inaugurated by Gregory VII eight hundred years earlier.
Although Gregory is not as well known as the reformers of the sixteenth century or the philosophes of the eighteenth century, a case can be made that Gregory's studied rebuff of royal power in ecclesiastical affairs worked far greater changes in European political and religious life than did the upheavals of the Reformation or the Enlightenment.
That, at least, is the thesis of Tom Holland's new book, The Forge of Christendom, a provocative and elegantly written account of the end of the first millennium and the beginning of the second. Gregory did not live to witness his ultimate victory. But "the cause for which he fought," writes Holland, a British historian and radio personality, "was destined to establish itself as perhaps the defining characteristic of Western civilization." That characteristic is the division of the world into Church and state, with these realms distinct from each other. In Holland's eyes, Gregory "stood as godfather to the future."
What makes this book such a pleasure to read is not only the author's sprightly prose but also his informative presentation of the panorama of medieval life against which the drama of Canossa took place. It is as though Holland wants his reader to know, before he tells the story of Henry's journey across the Alps in the dead of winter to await word from the pope, what tenth- and eleventh-century kings and emperors were really like. In a lengthy preface, Holland apprises the reader of the significance of what is to...