In the Medieval Moment: The Past Is More Than a Set of Events with an Inevitable Outcome. Historians Must Strive to Capture It in All Its Fascinating Strangeness, Argues Chris Wickham, as He Ponders the Problems of Writing about the Middle Ages

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When did the modern world begin? To Renaissance intellectuals, it was obvious, it was right then; and thinkers distinguished their own time as 'modern' in comparison with the ancient world which they saw themselves as reviving. The 1,000 years between were relegated to the 'middle', in a terminology that has stuck. But there have been plenty of other claims to the title. The French Revolution and the subsequent political and cultural changes of the early 19th century have been seen by a generation of French scholars to be the origin of 'modernity'; for similar reasons, though more economic in focus, the Industrial Revolution has seemed a key moment of change to British historians.

Medievalists, keen to avoid marginalisation, have sought to attach themselves to the grand narrative of modernity by claiming periods of reform and 'renaissance' as well. These have tended to focus on the 11th and 12th centuries when a number of major developments occurred that seemed to shift Europe's path decisively: papal reform; a wide-ranging movement of criticism of the cosy relationship between secular and ecclesiastical powers; a concentration of education and intellectual argument in new centres of study (the future universities) in Bologna and Paris; Christian religious aggression in Spain and Palestine; new forms of state-building in England and France, Castile and Sicily; a considerable rise in population; and the subjugation of the peasantry to a local aristocracy much more intent than before on control and exploitation at the village level - all these converge in what R.I. Moore has called 'The first European revolution', the title of his influential book of 2002. Moore was most interested in the last two or three of these developments, but all of them have come to be seen collectively as part of the moment in which the Middle Ages achieved its canonical form as a period of innovation and self-awareness that, far from being eclipsed by the 'renaissance' around 1500, led directly to it.

The classicist and popular historian Tom Holland, author of the best-selling Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic, encapsulates this view marvellously in his most recent work Millennium: the End of the World and the Forging of Christendom, the new paperback edition of which is published next month. Holland opens with the humiliation of the Emperor Henry IV before Pope Gregory VII at Canossa in 1077 and ends with the bloodbath of the First Crusade in 1099. He sees these events as part of 'the road to modernity, [which] stretches clearly from the first Millennium onwards'. Holland, however, is most interested in the back-story to these moments of change, in the period beginning in the mid- 10th century and spanning the millennium, the training ground for Gregory and his reformist colleagues. Holland focuses on high politics, both secular and ecclesiastical, and uses the primary sources from the whole of Europe to create a compelling story, which ranges from Germany to Arab Spain, Egypt to Norway.

Writers such as Holland prove that serious history does not need to be boring - indeed, never has the period spanning the late 10th and early 11th centuries emerged, in all its confusion and happy degradation, quite so clearly into the limelight. I had certainly never noticed that Abbot Odo of Cluny was quite so graphic about masturbation, though I am not surprised to learn that he was against it; or that Adam of Bremen thought that Icelanders in the winter who rubbed their noses risked them snapping off, 'frozen mucus and all'. There is quite a lot about bodily functions in this book, all of it drawn from impeccable sources, which have been plundered before for duller and less colourful details. But there is also a large amount of bouncy narrative about political scheming and misadventure - from the disasters of the civil war in al-Andalus, Arab Spain, in the 1010s, to the improbable success of Gerbert of Aurillac, a political dealer and intellectual of non-noble origin who ended up, not dead or disgraced as most parvenus did in medieval politics, but as Pope Silvester II (999-1003). …