The Birth of the West: Rome, Germany, France, and the Creation of Europe in the Tenth Century

Paul Collins, Author
Paul Collins. PublicAffairs, $29.99 (496p) ISBN 978-1-61039-013-2
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Western Europe claws its way out of the Dark Ages—just barely—in this hair-raising history. Collins, formerly a Catholic priest, surveys the century or so after Charlemagne’s empire collapsed into civil war and anarchy, a time when government was a protection racket run by petty warlords, Viking and Muslim raiders pillaged and slaughtered, and popes comported themselves like Roman gang leaders. Amid a panorama of local vendettas and parochial power plays, Collins discerns movements toward a renewed order, initiated by Church reformers and farsighted statesmen, particularly the Saxon kings and queens who knitted Germany into a functioning state and resurrected the Holy Roman Empire. Writing with a supple prose and an eye for colorful detail and vivid characters, Collins shapes some of history’s most appalling behavior—first prize might go to Pope Steven VI, who exhumed his predecessor’s rotting corpse and placed it on trial for heresy—into a lively narrative with a comprehensible story line. Behind the blood-lettings and betrayals of medieval politics, he sketches an illuminating interpretation of a society and worldview shaped by insecurity, superstition, and personal loyalties. The result is a fascinating account of how a desperate struggle for survival bequeathed a civilization. 8 maps. Agent: Mary Cunnane, the Mary Cunnane Agency. (Feb. 12)
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