The perfect popular history book should be like a cute little puppy, easy to pick up and hard to put down (literally or metaphorically). And this is just such a book, complete with big eager eyes and a shiny nose. But like a puppy, it isn’t quite fully formed. It sets out with the noble objective of creating a coherent narrative of the era around the turn of the first millennium. The framing mechanism is the idea that lots of people were reacting to the imminent return of Christ. It doesn’t really succeed. In fact it sort of shows the opposite. But that doesn’t stop it from being a cracking read
This period is really confusing. Tom Holland doesn’t really manage to make it into a single story, but it is fun seeing him try. And the series of not particularly well related stories he does come up with are well told and engaging.
The different threads of which it is composed are the reaction of church authorities to the prospect of the thousandth anniversary of Christ’s birth, the early history of the Holy Roman Empire, the establishment of England and the creation of Russia. Along the way we get a lot of interesting stories, some engaging characters and some fun facts. Despite being British and quite keen on history I had no idea that Harald Hardrada actually had a pretty good claim on the throne of England in 1066 for example. I also loved finding out that the female heads of state in Europe held an all women summit meeting in 996 to sort out matters of mutual interest, particularly marrying off their children.
That it doesn’t hang together is pretty much the fault of the era, not the book. It is not much use for hard core medieval head bangers – it is light on detail and covers a huge amount of history in not many pages. But it is superbly written. If you are a bit hazy about this period and want a quick easy to read run down then you really can’t go wrong.