Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Gift of the West

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Gift of the West

Article excerpt


Reviewed by Robert Louis Wilken

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 die Reformation or the Enlightenment.

That, at least, is the thesis of Tom Holland's new book, The Forge of Christendom, a provocative and elegandy written account of the end of the first millennium and die 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 die world into Church and state, with these realms distinct from each other. In Holland's eyes, Gregory "stood as godfatiier to the future."

What makes this book such a pleasure to read is not only the author's sprighdy prose but also his informative presentation of the panorama of medieval life against which die 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 follow. He does not bring Gregory back onstage, however, until he has moved his narrative from Gaul to Germany and onward through Poland, Constantinople, Italy, Spain, Scandinavia, Normandy, and England. As a literary strategy, it works well. By the time Holland brings the story back to the confrontation at Canossa, the reader has a keen sense of how extraordinary it was for the head of the German Reich to submit to the pope.

But, as the title suggests, there are other themes as well. The events that led up to die showdown between pope and king took place against the backdrop of the approaching millennium. Kings and queens, monks and bishops, soldiers and peasants, all lived with fear and foreboding of what was to come. The abbot Adso told a terrified Saxon queen that "the times we live in being what they are, there is no topic of more pressing urgency." Gregory and Henry lived long after the year 1000, of course, but the medievale were much less mathematical about the actual date of their millennium than we were about ours. Talk of the end of days began in the middle of the tenth century and continued well into die elevendi. To some, the precise date was 1033, the one-thousandth anniversary of Christ's passion. In contrast to some modern scholars who dismiss the "false terrors of the year one thousand," Holland shows that dread of the approaching end was palpable in the lives of the men and women of that epoch. …

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