The Age That Forged Christianity And Its Reform In the winter of 1077, German King Henry IV trudged through a snowy mountain pass in the Italian Alps. Historian Tom Holland, author of a new book about the turn of the millennium, calls the journey "an episode as fateful as any in Europe's history."
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The Age That Forged Christianity And Its Reform

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The Age That Forged Christianity And Its Reform

The Age That Forged Christianity And Its Reform

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GUY RAZ, host:

On to another Christian tale now. In the winter of 1077, Henry IV trudged through the snowy passes of the Italian Alps to the village of Canossa. When he got there, Henry had to stand outside in the freezing cold in front of Pope Gregory VII's castle. The pope had excommunicated him and Henry was seeking forgiveness.

Historian Tom Holland picks up the story from here.

Mr. TOM HOLLAND (Historian): (Reading) By the morning of Saturday, the 28th of January, the third day of the Royal Penance, Gregory had seen enough. He ordered the inner set of gates unbarred at last. Negotiations were opened and soon concluded. Pope and king, for the first time perhaps since Henry had been a small child, met each other face-to-face. The pinch-faced penitent was absolved with a papal kiss. And so was set the seal on an episode as fateful as any in Europe's history.

RAZ: That's Tom Holland reading from his new book, "The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West." Tom Holland joins us from London.

Great to have you on the show.

Mr. HOLLAND: Thanks for having me.

RAZ: How did what happened at Canossa shape the Western world?

Mr. HOLLAND: Well, I think in all sorts of ways, and in ways almost that we have forgotten. Because I think that one of the defining characteristics of Western civilization - and I guess even more in America than here in England -is the fact that we presume that church should be separate from state.

But the thing is that back in the 11th century, that wasn't taken for granted at all. And what Gregory was doing was saying to the Holy Roman emperor, who had always taken for granted that he not only had the right, but he had a positive duty to poke his nose into the affairs of the church, that he had to back off, that the business of the church was that of the church alone.

RAZ: You compare Henry IV's walk to Canossa, which took him several months, to other pivotal events in the history of Europe; the storming of the Bastille, for example, which ignited the French Revolution. It's that significant, you say.

Mr. HOLLAND: I think so. I think it's one of those great symbolic moments. In itself it doesn't particularly resolve anything. But in the long term, the emperor and the other kings of Europe are forced to accept that church should be separate and distinct. And these are sort of the building blocks for what will become the papal monarchy in the Middle Ages.

And the consequence of this is the papacy starts constructing really what is the first modern state in Europe, with its own bureaucracy, its own lawyers, its own tax collection system. And the kings and the emperors of Western Europe decide that they are going to model their own states on this. But these are states that are largely bled of any sort of religious or sacral dimension.

RAZ: This book, your new book, is really about the period of time just before and just after the year 1000, the first millennium. Can you describe the upheaval around that period?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOLLAND: Well, there's an abbot in the year 900 who, it has to be said, is not one of life's natural optimists. And he says quite, quite clearly in sort of the tones of an Al Gore that the world is doomed, that everything is coming to an end. And his reason for doing that is twofold. Partly it's because I think that it is undoubtedly the worst time to be a European in history, because Europe is being attacked from all sides: by Vikings, by Hungarians, by Saracens, and it is imploding from within.

But also, of course, this backdrop is focusing attention on the fact that the year 1000 and the millennial period is approaching, and that has significance because, according to the Book of Revelation, that is the date of the end of the world - the coming of not only Christ but before him, Antichrist. And so there are people in the 10th century, I think, who really are bracing themselves for the worst.

RAZ: For the end of the world.

Mr. HOLLAND: Yeah, absolutely. But throughout this period, I think people are thinking that Christ will be the answer, that he will come again. Once that hope is disappointed, then people are forced to wake up to the fact that if they want to see a new Jerusalem founded on Earth, then they're going to have to do it themselves.

And this is what leads into the great project of reform, which inspires Gregory the VII, the great pope. This is what encourages Europe's first attempt at self-reformation.

RAZ: Tom, there are a lot of characters in this book. And I want to ask you about one in particular. His name is Fulk Nerra. He's known as the...

(Soundbite of laughter)


RAZ: ...Black, The Black. The Count of Anjou in France and he was part of this trend that you go on to describe: the emergence of landlords and aristocrats, the people who would come to rule Europe.

Mr. HOLLAND: Yes. I mean, I think what is extraordinary about this millennial period, these decades either side of the year 1000, is that almost everything that I think we would instinctively associate with the Middle Ages is born in this period. And Fulk Nerra is absolutely a pioneer because he has picked up on an exciting new innovation, which is to find a sort of an area of high ground and to build wooden or possibly stone foundations on it, and using this then to terrorize the locals. And this invention, of course, is the castle. And in this period, these are sprouting out like sort of mushrooms from rotten wood all over France.

Now, if you're going to make these castles have an impact, then you need to man them. And so Fulk and his colleagues start recruiting gangs of mail-clad thugs, that in French are called chevaliers and in English, after 1066, are known as cnihts, as knights.

RAZ: Hmm.

Mr. HOLLAND: And these knights are then set to rounding up the peasantry, as though they were sort of errant cattle or sheep, and installing them in radical new settlements called villages. So this is where it is all beginning.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Castles, knights and villages exactly around this period.

RAZ: Tom Holland, I've read two of your previous books, "Rubicon," about the final days of the Roman Republic, and "Persian Fire," which is kind of an update of Herodotus' histories on the Persian/Greek wars.

Your work, particularly on ancient Rome and Greece, has found a really big audience. Are you surprised by that? I mean, why do think that is?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOLLAND: Well, for me, this has been a passion since I was about eight and I got given, you know, books with Romans in. And I suppose that ever since then, my automatic presumption has been that this is completely fascinating.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Hmm.

Mr. HOLLAND: And it's fascinating both on the human level, sort of the details of the extraordinary things that people did, and they thought, and they said. But it's also intellectually fascinating, compelling. It's this sense that by looking at the ancient past, whether it's Greece or Rome or the early Middle Ages, you are doing the equivalent of what I suppose therapists do when they look back at the childhood of people. Because that's where you trace the ultimate origins of what you are in the present. I cannot see how that could be more fascinating.

RAZ: Tom Holland is the author of "The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West." He joined us from London.

Tom Holland, thank you.

Mr. HOLLAND: Thanks very much.

RAZ: Tom Holland is now working on a book about the Prophet Muhammad and the early days of Islamic caliphate.

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