Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

The Landscapes of Dark Ages: Historian Paul Collins Didn't Intend It as Such, but His the Birth of the West Is Partially an Antidote to Thomas Cahill's Informative and Entertaining, If Overweening, How the Irish Saved Civilization

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

The Landscapes of Dark Ages: Historian Paul Collins Didn't Intend It as Such, but His the Birth of the West Is Partially an Antidote to Thomas Cahill's Informative and Entertaining, If Overweening, How the Irish Saved Civilization

Article excerpt

With Collins I cheated, something I rarely do with a book. I dove straight into Chapter 15: "Faith and Church in the Tenth Century." I was looking for that fighting figurehead, Charles the Bald, the ninth-century Charles II, the Holy Roman Emperor. (He died in a place called Brides-le-Bain, which schoolboys translated as "brides in the bathtub.") I needn't have searched: Charles pops up regularly throughout the book.

Australian Collins, historian and former priest, has a masterly touch throughout, for he writes the book on the several levels. He describes Europe, physically. He tells us what we are looking at, the stage set of history, the extensive woodlands, the major massifs and plateaus. All the while he is populating this landscape. This is truly history from the bottom up, layering the terrain. This is Dark Ages cities when Rome's population, possibly once as high as 800,000, was now between 25,000 and 35,000. Yet Collins' history is telling that though the ages were dark, not all the lights had been turned off. What we are receiving from Collins' sure hand is what happened after the fall of Rome. Not much, until a later ninth-century flickering, and then candles being lit across the 10th century.

We meet Alberico early. He was a land-grabbing murderer whose land included Rome. There were, in the ninth century, three popes simultaneously.

Alberico's favorite was the ruling Sergius III. And if the others began to disappear from the scene, well, there's also plenty of sexual scuttlebutt to counterbalance the brutality.

This is not to suggest Collins is taking history lightly. History itself is pretty light at times. The Harvard-trained theologian with a doctorate in history from Australia's National University is attempting to give some form to the Dark Ages' shadows by introducing those who wanted to bring order to a disorganized, disintegrated Europe barely recognizable as a place with boundaries--other than language and patois and geographical boundaries like mountain chains and broad rivers.

His chapter on Islam and the Muslim-Christian coexistence under Islamic domination in Spain is a story unto itself. His Anglo-Saxon Britain and Celtic lands excursions are like packaged tours in time. This is an intriguing 395-page read that gradually comes together at the end as Collins pulls on all the threads to tie into a fine knot. (And, yes, the Collins' name may seem familiar to you. He was a parish priest in Australia for 33 years, well-known to NCR. He resigned after battling with the papacy and went on to write a book on all those who similarly jousted with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, The Modern Inquisition. Which is not why he's reviewed here.)

To conclude with Collins and Thomas Cahill, their Dark Ages starting points are not dissimilar.

Collins opens with the anonymous Irish monk in his Bangor (Northern Ireland) monastery, who, fearing the Vikings, wrote in the margins of the grammar book he was studying:

The bitter wind is high tonight
It lifts the white locks of the sea
In such wild winter storm no fright
Of savage Viking troubles me.

It was a storm a hundredfold times more wild that swept toward Japan in 2011 and is the focal point of Sean McDonough's Fukushima on the earthquake and tsunami's second anniversary. …

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