In "The Birth of the West," historian Paul Collins successfully highlights the tendency toward integration present among the 10th century's violent disintegration.
First the disintegration: Monarchs held on by the skin of their teeth, as they had no real administration or concept of statecraft. Politics therefore returned to the local and often to the barbaric. Warlords waged constant campaigning across Europe, with power as the only currency.
Even the papacy had lost sight of the larger picture of Christendom. The biggest problem it faced was, according to Collins, the "claustrophobic nature of Roman society ... a parochial, self-referential world in which the papacy increasingly became the plaything of local power brokers." In other words, the popes of the period were largely the creatures of the Roman clans constantly vying for power over the lucrative pilgrimage trade and taxation of the papal lands. St. Peter's successors therefore tended to get overly involved in this localized view, and left the church in the rest of Europe to itself. The author brings out the wickedness of these people quite vividly, relying on primary sources and historical episodes.
All across Europe, the Carolingian Empire, established by Charlemagne and his father Pippin, was unraveling in the face of this localism as well as from the Viking raids from the north and Muslim raids from the south. Europe was a dangerous, anarchic place, and readers are introduced to the names and situations that reflect this.
Collins cites the writing of the monk Paschasius Radbertus as "typical of the defeatism and despair that infected many in France" under Viking attack: "Who would have ever believed or thought possible that in our place and time we would be overrun by such fearful misfortunes? So today we are frightened as these pirate bands violate the borders of Paris and set on fire the churches of Christ on the banks of the Seine.... Who could have determined that such a glorious kingdom, so fortified, large, populous and strong would be humiliated and defiled by such a filthy race?"
The only hope for integration came from the faith. Despite all the invasions and political fragmentation, Christendom as an idea remained and united the continent. It is here, in the hearts of the people and in the monasteries, that the author locates the tendency to pan-Europeanism, something that would grow in the 11th century and afterward.
Ironically, given the unifying power of faith, the laity followed an eclectic mixture of Christian and pagan belief and practice. As well, "the borders between the terrestrial and non-natural worlds were permeable," the author observes, noting that death and disease, the weather and crop success or failure were up to God or other spiritual factors, including the people's sinfulness.
Collins gives us repeated glimpses of the external, ritualistic nature of faith, such as the fierce competition among pilgrimage sites to attract visitors. The more ornately beautiful a relic's presentation, the more spiritual power that pilgrimage church possessed, folk believed. Collins shows why this sort of thing played such a vital role: "People felt that their lives were manipulated by irresistible forces, both good and malign, that needed to be propitiated."
All this faith made the 10th century, despite the lack of political unity and coherence, an important period liturgically, as the Ottonian emperors of Saxony unified the Franco-Romanic liturgy, and as liturgical embellishment increased. Collins notes that the more ornamental priestly vestments reflected the increasing gulf between clergy and laity, though he fails to provide reasons for arguing so.
Despite this concern for the political, Collins also discusses the popular culture and social issues of the time. People lived not under the shadow of institutions but within webs of personal relationships, including protective ones with a lord, that brought some level of integration at the local level. Most peasants were not serfs, though they did owe service for the protection they received. Not surprisingly, they lived close to the land in a hand-to-mouth existence.
"The Birth of the West," while bogging down on occasion with all the names and places thrown around, particularly in relation to politics, opens a strange world to us, even to Catholics typically enamored by the Middle Ages. The 10th century is well before the more commonly known eras and movements, such as the Crusades, friars, scholastics and mystics of the 11th to 14th centuries.
Collins argues his main point successfully that these later centuries, and the modern world they created, grew out of the chaotic 10th century. This book will give readers a fuller understanding of the whole medieval period.