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Paul Collins’ ‘Birth of West’ sheds light on dark ages

Who would imagine that a nearly 500-page tome on the comings and goings of obscure ninth and 10th century Europeans could possibly be an exciting read, entertaining throughout and at times totally surprising?

That’s exactly what we have in Paul Collins’ “The Birth of the West.” This book is scholarly and detailed, its narrative is often downright witty, its observations are caustic, and more often than not its conclusions speak directly to the 21st century reader.

Let’s begin by setting our historical bearings: The dawn of the 10th century is 150 years before William the Conqueror showed up on the English coast to establish what would eventually become “our island fortress.” The close of the 10th century still is nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus.

So if there ever was a dark age in the history of the West – scholars today tend to agree there wasn’t – then this would be it.

Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire had disintegrated early in the ninth century.

Collins’ ninth and 10th century Europe is peopled by ineffectual minor dukes in the north and some of the most corrupt popes ever in the south, constantly battling each other over a shifting empire that by this time was in name only.

And always hanging over their petty internecine warfare was the mortal threat of an enemy from outside. One year it’s the Magyars pushing in from what we today would call Hungary. Another year, it’s the Saracens – Islamic Arabs – pushing up from North Africa through Spain. Or it’s the Slavs. And of course there always was the Viking threat.

The Vikings, from Scandinavia and Denmark, controlled the water. Wherever there was a river, they saw a highway to human treasure. They sailed up the Seine to sack the Island of Paris, up the Thames to the ancient Roman outpost of London (or Londinium), up the Rhine, deep into the interior of the continent. They even sailed up the River Liffey to Dublin, a town so isolated the Vikings used it as a warehouse for stolen treasure.

Collins’ story is the story of the medieval Church of Rome – today it is the Roman Catholic Church – and the vast northern and western provinces of the once-glorious Roman Empire, both in the state of serious disrepair following the implosion of Imperial Rome and the collapse of centralized government in the West.

It is difficult for us to imagine today a world in which the lines between the church and civil authority are so blurred as to be almost nonexistent. This was a tough time to live. Life was short. A man was old at 35, a woman sooner. Violence was the norm. If a Viking didn’t get you, a mysterious bacteria or fungus did. So man looked to heaven for his reward.

There was little civil authority to protect your body, but there was the church to protect your soul. A Viking couldn’t steal that, but a devil might.

In this age of lawlessness and mass baptism by force, the Christianity of old Rome and the paganism of the northern invaders became a stew of superstition, of magic spirits both good and evil, vying for your soul through the use of thunder, lightning bolts, eclipses and even Halley’s comet.

So the church and the papacy, in one of their darkest periods, become central to Collins’ narrative.

And therein lies the rub. In some circles, Collins’ characterization of events – not his impeccable scholarship – is highly suspect.

Collins, an Australian, is a Catholic priest who in his old age resigned from his priestly duties due to a doctrinal dispute with the Vatican over (of all things) papal infallibility.

So when he tells the story of the “Cadaver Synod” of 897, when the corpse of Pope Formosus was exhumed, dressed in papal garments, and put on trial (you might say “in absentia”) as a heretic in the presence of his successor pope, some might accuse Collins of exaggeration. He is working from contemporary chronicles, translated from the original Latin, but even Collins concedes the chroniclers sometimes enhanced fact with fiction.

When he refers to the writings of the medieval monk Peter Damian (Collins uses the Latin name Pietro Damiani), Collins invariably emphasizes Damian’s harsh condemnation of homosexuality in the monasteries of Europe, as if this were the point of Damian’s crusade. We know from multiple sources through the centuries that Damian spent his life reforming every aspect of monastic life, most notably the selling of spirituality and church offices, the amassing of great monastic fortunes, and married clergy. Homosexuality was but a footnote.

Incidentally, Collins quotes liberally from the letters of Damian as translated into English for the first time just 50 years ago by a friar in Western Illinois.

Despite the misgivings in some circles, Collins is a marvelous storyteller and the stories he’s repeating are the stories as they were recorded in the ninth and 10th centuries. His knowledge of that age is boundless as he describes the weather in the Medieval Warm Period, or the legumes most fancied by the Saxon serf.

It was during this time, he relates, that a wall was built around the Vatican, the same wall that separates the Vatican from the busy streets of Rome today. Of course, this was half a millennium before the current St. Peter’s Basilica was even begun. And by the ninth century, that once imperial city of more than a million inhabitants now had a population about the size of today’s Town of Hamburg. So much for doing away with centralized government.

By the end of the story, Otto III is beginning to unify the Germanic states, the provinces of West Francia are beginning to coalesce, the Christianized Slavs have staked out a location in what now is Poland, as have the Magyars in what today is Hungary. And today’s England was only a generation away from a strong ruler to continue what Alfred the Great had begun in the ninth century.

Despite his scathing criticism of the papacy, Collins concludes that it was the very stability of the church, especially in Germanic Europe, with its unifying set of core beliefs that began to pull the continent back from the edge of disintegration.

And then he offers this final justification – as if one were needed – for a life’s work: “If we forget where we came from,” Collins writes, “we will simply drift into the future with nothing to offer it.”

The Birth of the West: Rome, Germany, France and the Creation of Europe in the Tenth Century

By Paul Collins

Public Affairs

496 pages, $29.99

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.