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Paul Collins resurrects the time when popes ruled the West

Pope Sylvester II, the smartest man ever to wear the papal tiara, corresponded with scholars in the caliph’s court about mathematics and astronomy.

The Birth of the West
Paul Collins
Public Affairs

Remember when it was fashionable for world-weary undergraduates to whip out their dog-eared paperback of Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West to explain their existential funk? Nowadays, of course, the scholarly doom-and-gloom set prefer to make their case by pointing to the popularity of Honey Boo Boo and the Kardashians. How can a civilization with such heroes not be headed to oblivion, they ask earnestly over their lattes. Given that fairly widespread sentiment, someone celebrating not the death but the birth of the West offers a refreshing breather from the ambient buzzkill of our era. The subtitle of Paul Collins's new book, Rome, Germany, France and the Creation of Europe in the Tenth Century, informs us that he is not your usual Western-civ cheerleader, jumping up and down about the glory that was Greece.

Instead, his witty, erudite The Birth of the West takes us into the down-and-dirty territory at the end of the first Christian millennium, and then leads us out into the light with considerable aplomb. What his subtitle does not tell us, however, is that his is a wider tour d'horizon, encompassing also Muslim Spain, Ireland, Britain, Poland and Hungary. Collins's work is not so much a sustained narrative as a series of discrete chapters, with some overlaps, devoted to how these proto-countries were doing at the time.

Much of this murky terrain was covered by Tom Holland in Millennium (2008), with his customary display of narrative panache (few popular historians possess Holland's writerly chops), but Collins differs in that he has a truly profound understanding of the church. A priest for 33 years – he quit after a dispute with then-cardinal and soon-to-be-ex-pope Joseph Ratzinger – Collins writes with utter authority on anything ecclesiastical, from theology and papal power politics to clerical dress codes and concubines.

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He also writes well and, perhaps befitting his Australian nationality, bluntly. Few scholars would pen the following: "He was a testosterone-driven, late-adolescent lout whose lust was uncontrolled." That the subject of the sentence is a 10th-century pope, John XII, makes it all the more delicious. In fact, the times covered by his stories – which, deviating from the subtitle once again, also includes the ninth century – constitute such a dog's breakfast of war, squabbling and vice that they fairly call out for an unflinching narrator.

Thus, we get 10th-century Rome, where the men occupying St. Peter's throne make the Renaissance popes look like choirboys, and where a remarkable woman, Marozia Theophylact, beds a pope at the age of 14, bears him a son, gets that son made pope and rules over the Eternal City, then a shambolic mess, with absolute authority for 20 years. If only for bringing figures like Marozia out of obscurity, Collins deserves a tipping of our lance.

The book brims with factoids and names. I happen to like factoids and names, but the "modern reader," as Collins gently calls inhabitants of the Twittersphere in a warning before a dense passage, may find it a tough slog. It is, however, worth the journey, especially for medievalist buffs, for the 800s and 900s usually get short shrift in histories of the Middle Ages. Once Charlemagne leaves the picture, the screen goes dark for a few centuries.

A man on a mission, Collins resurrects these forgotten years in painstaking detail. The fate of France, beset by marauding Vikings and thuggish warlords who style themselves margraves, counts, dukes and the like, leads him to describe it, characteristically, as a "basket case." Things start looking up when the last of the Carolingians dies and the first Capetian, Hugh Capet, is elected king in 987.

The star of the show, the midwife to the birth of the West, is Saxon Germany. Once the tiresomely violent Magyars are dispatched at the Battle of Lechfeld (955), the king of Germany is able, at last, to restore order. Three great men, Otto I, Otto II and Otto III, become not just kings but Holy Roman Emperors, bringing stability to large swaths of Europe and rekindling an ideal that transcended petty local ambitions. This, Collins holds, is where the West was won.

He strays off the reservation only when discussing Islam, for which he seems to have no patience. Thus jihad means only war – neglecting the "greater jihad" of individual striving toward God – and, in a preposterous passage, he makes the crusaders jihad copycats. Otherwise, Collins is abreast of recent scholarship, mentioning the latest environmental, climatic, demographic and dietary findings. The last, which attributes more robust populations to widespread consumption of the bean, occasions an Aussie reflection on flatulence.

And, in an astounding passage, Collins popularizes the theory that the pope of the year 1000, Sylvester II, the smartest man ever to wear the papal tiara, received his knowledge of mathematics (he introduced Arabic numerals to the West) and astronomy (ditto the astrolabe) from corresponding with Hasdai ibn Shaprut, the Jewish polymath, physician and diplomat in the caliph's court in Cordoba.

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Stimulating, encyclopedic and often downright funny, this is a book worth remembering. As Collins writes in his epilogue: "If we forget where we came from, we will simply drift into the future with nothing to offer it."

Stephen O'Shea is the author of Sea of Faith: Islam and Christianity in the Medieval Mediterranean World (2006). His latest book is The Friar of Carcassonne: Revolt Against the Inquisition in the Last Days of the Cathars (2011). He lives in Providence, R.I.

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