Paul Collins, Catholic writer


The Birth of the West

Rome, Germany, France and the Creation of Europe in the Tenth Century Birth of the West by Paul Collins


Publisher: Public Affairs
Pages: 496
Price (Hardcover): $29.99
Publication Date: February 12, 2013
ISBN (Hardcover): 978-1-61039-013-2      
Available in bookshops in the US and Canada, on Amazon or from .



Reviews of Birth of the West

The Birth of the West is a re-making of what we think we know about the end of the ‘Dark Ages.’ It is also the gate to the utterly unexpected cosmos of European forebears. In some ways, from waterlogged England by way of the folk beliefs of French peasants, to the ambitious consolidation of Germany, corruption and reform in the Papacy, the machinations of Constantinople, and the continuing presence of Moorish culture in Western Europe, the characters who people The Birth of the West are as familiar as relatives―as indeed they are―groping their way to a cohesive Western culture as yet dominant in the world. The Birth of the West is thus the tale of our birth, and Collins tells it with a narrative grace and elegance which will make readers cherish it.”

Thomas Keneally
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"A lively, full-to-bursting history of the turbulent 10th century in Europe, when inner dissention and external marauding began to give way to cohesion and centrality.

"Australian nonpracticing Catholic priest and historian Collins manages to enthrall readers in the vicissitudes of an early medieval era marked by random violence and unpronounceable Nordic names via his thorough knowledge of the epoch and ability to spin an engaging tale. While giving the brilliant learning of al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) its due, he agrees with Thomas Cahill that the Irish and specifically monks indeed “saved civilization” by their stewardship and dissemination of Latin and Greek learning. Collins presents chaotic upheaval across Europe in an organized and riveting fashion. He provides a rich depiction of the physical landscape, which was experiencing a medieval warm period, allowing the Vikings to settle Greenland in the 980s after the North Atlantic sea ice had retreated. He recaps the important democratic shifts and religious conversions thanks to the inroads of Charlemagne in northern Europe and the Muslims in the south; notes the destabilizing terror struck constantly by the marauding Vikings, Saracens and Magyars; delineates the messy and increasingly dangerous papacy; and one by one takes up the dramas of important galvanizing leaders who emerged to impose some sense of order and centrality of government, even if briefly—e.g., the Saxon king Otto I, King Alfred in England and Brian Boru in Ireland. Along with stories about the likes of Liutprand of Cremona, Otto’s diplomat, the remarkable regent queen Theophano and polymath Gerbert of Aurillac (aka Pope Sylvester II), Collins also explores the lives of ordinary people in a convulsive time.

"Who knew the 10th century could be so compelling?"

Kirkus ★ Starred Review★ (Awarded to Book of Remarkable Merit)
19 November 2012
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“In The Birth of the West, Paul Collins makes accessible and exciting the world of tenth-century Europe. With a sense for both the grand narrative and for the quirks of particular personalities, Collins makes this central medieval century seem not so dark. Rather, lit by the fiery eyes of three German kings named Otto, who stand at the heart of Collins' story, it is an era of significant cultural achievement and political advance — though no less bloody for it.”

Jay Rubenstein, Professor of History, University of Tennessee, Knoxville,
and author of
Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse
(Basic Books, 2011)

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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.”     

Publishers' Weekly, 10 December 2012
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"Historians have been arguing over the origins and distinctiveness of Western civilization since it began. The debate has been endless partly because the scholars can’t agree on their terms—just what is “the West,” anyway? But mostly because within the historical profession as a whole, and probably within each historian’s psyche, lie contradictory emotions: the longing to find a starting point, to say on one side of the line is this, while on the other side is that, and the belief that the roots of the present go back and back and back.

"So it is, that after scholars have spent generations pushing back Western origins from the Renaissance and Reformation to arrive at the 11th century—when a reformed papacy emerged and the three centuries of better climactic conditions known as the “medieval warm period” got going—along comes Collins to knock another century off the reckoning.

"He makes a lively, if not ultimately convincing, case that the foundations of 11th-century expansion—by the end of which, Europe was powerful enough that, after fighting off or assimilating invaders on all fronts, it was able to start invading its neighbours in the First Crusade—were laid in the 10th century. In particular, a revived, reform-minded and now German-dominated Holy Roman Empire ended the threat of Magyar incursions from the east and freed the papacy from the vicious power struggles of local Roman nobility.

"The papacy, Collins rightly points out, reached its nadir in the late 9th century with the infamous “cadaver synod” of 897, when Pope Stephen VI exhumed his predecessor Pope Formosus and put him on trial for perjury. (Unsurprisingly, the corpse was found guilty, then tied to weights and thrown in the Tiber.) But to argue that the 9th century was even worse is not enough to make the still chaotic 10th the West’s foundational era. No matter: someone is bound to make a pitch for the 8th century soon."

Macleans Magazine, 14 February 2013
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"There are many times and places in history one might like to visit, or even live: Rome under Augustus, Paris in the belle epoque, London in the ’60s. But surely no one would want to live anywhere in Europe in the 900s, including probably most of those who did live then.

"Paul Collins’ very readable The Birth of the West, written for a general reader with little background in the era, shows Europe, three generations after the death of Charlemagne in 814, fallen into disorder, with no central government and all autonomy local.

"It was a time of great suffering. From the north, Vikings raided the coastlines of Britain and France, plundering and raping, enslaving and murdering whole cities. They invaded as far west as Constantinople, and penetrated the coastal rivers to besiege Paris, then only an island in the Seine. Sometimes they could be bribed to spare a city or region. But the next year or the next, they’d return. For decades they spread terror and disorder all across Europe.

"From the south came the Saracens, as Islamists were called in those days, again plundering and enslaving. What is now the Riviera was then a Saracen pirate enclave. From the east came the Magyars, fierce nomadic warriors who lived off plunder and rampage. Eventually they would settle in Hungary, after laying waste to most of central Europe.

"Rome, seat of Christianity and the one unifying element in European society, had fallen under control of the city’s warring families, predecessors of today’s mafias.

"'Power in medieval society was noncentralized, consensual, and consultative,” Collins writes, “even if the consent was limited to the more powerful.”

"The 900s are a fascinating time in history, and many lessons might be derived from the era’s amazing and usually violent changes in reigns and rulers — despite the endless and often bewildering successions of Ottos, Leos, Pippins and Benedicts.

"Collins focuses instead on the emergence of the central state, and what would become, for better and worse, modern Europe.

"One element that defeated Charlemagne’s successors was the Frankish custom of dividing land among sons, rather than passing it along to the eldest — the consequence being a “brothers’ war” among his grandsons.

"Language divisions reflected — and speeded — geographic and cultural changes, as everyday vulgar Latin evolved into early Germanic and Romance languages.

"Collins follows the lead of other recent historians in seeing this period not just as brutish and stagnant, but also rich in its cultural and spiritual life, and his best chapters focus on everyday people and experiences.

"The Birth of the West is not an extravagant title. Collins closes, appropriately, with “the fears” that preceded the year 1000 and led to history’s first judicial burning for heresy. The Reich was established in Germany. And Paris, celebrated for its stubborn defense against the Vikings, was now an important point on the European map."

Dallas Morning News, 15 February 2013
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"Remember when it was fashionable for world-weary undergraduates to whip out their dog-eared paperback of Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West to explain their existential funk? Nowadays, of course, the scholarly doom-and-gloom set prefer to make their case by pointing to the popularity of Honey Boo Boo and the Kardashians. How can a civilization with such heroes not be headed to oblivion, they ask earnestly over their lattes. Given that fairly widespread sentiment, someone celebrating not the death but the birth of the West offers a refreshing breather from the ambient buzzkill of our era. The subtitle of Paul Collins’s new book, Rome, Germany, France and the Creation of Europe in the Tenth Century, informs us that he is not your usual Western-civ cheerleader, jumping up and down about the glory that was Greece.

"Instead, his witty, erudite The Birth of the West takes us into the down-and-dirty territory at the end of the first Christian millennium, and then leads us out into the light with considerable aplomb. What his subtitle does not tell us, however, is that his is a wider tour d’horizon, encompassing also Muslim Spain, Ireland, Britain, Poland and Hungary. Collins’s work is not so much a sustained narrative as a series of discrete chapters, with some overlaps, devoted to how these proto-countries were doing at the time.

"Much of this murky terrain was covered by Tom Holland in Millennium (2008), with his customary display of narrative panache (few popular historians possess Holland’s writerly chops), but Collins differs in that he has a truly profound understanding of the church. A priest for 33 years – he quit after a dispute with then-cardinal and soon-to-be-ex-pope Joseph Ratzinger – Collins writes with utter authority on anything ecclesiastical, from theology and papal power politics to clerical dress codes and concubines.

"He also writes well and, perhaps befitting his Australian nationality, bluntly. Few scholars would pen the following: “He was a testosterone-driven, late-adolescent lout whose lust was uncontrolled.” That the subject of the sentence is a 10th-century pope, John XII, makes it all the more delicious. In fact, the times covered by his stories – which, deviating from the subtitle once again, also includes the ninth century – constitute such a dog’s breakfast of war, squabbling and vice that they fairly call out for an unflinching narrator.

"Thus, we get 10th-century Rome, where the men occupying St. Peter’s throne make the Renaissance popes look like choirboys, and where a remarkable woman, Marozia Theophylact, beds a pope at the age of 14, bears him a son, gets that son made pope and rules over the Eternal City, then a shambolic mess, with absolute authority for 20 years. If only for bringing figures like Marozia out of obscurity, Collins deserves a tipping of our lance.

"The book brims with factoids and names. I happen to like factoids and names, but the “modern reader,” as Collins gently calls inhabitants of the Twittersphere in a warning before a dense passage, may find it a tough slog. It is, however, worth the journey, especially for medievalist buffs, for the 800s and 900s usually get short shrift in histories of the Middle Ages. Once Charlemagne leaves the picture, the screen goes dark for a few centuries.

"A man on a mission, Collins resurrects these forgotten years in painstaking detail. The fate of France, beset by marauding Vikings and thuggish warlords who style themselves margraves, counts, dukes and the like, leads him to describe it, characteristically, as a “basket case.” Things start looking up when the last of the Carolingians dies and the first Capetian, Hugh Capet, is elected king in 987.

"The star of the show, the midwife to the birth of the West, is Saxon Germany. Once the tiresomely violent Magyars are dispatched at the Battle of Lechfeld (955), the king of Germany is able, at last, to restore order. Three great men, Otto I, Otto II and Otto III, become not just kings but Holy Roman Emperors, bringing stability to large swaths of Europe and rekindling an ideal that transcended petty local ambitions. This, Collins holds, is where the West was won.

"He strays off the reservation only when discussing Islam, for which he seems to have no patience. Thus jihad means only war – neglecting the “greater jihad” of individual striving toward God – and, in a preposterous passage, he makes the crusaders jihad copycats. Otherwise, Collins is abreast of recent scholarship, mentioning the latest environmental, climatic, demographic and dietary findings. The last, which attributes more robust populations to widespread consumption of the bean, occasions an Aussie reflection on flatulence.

"And, in an astounding passage, Collins popularizes the theory that the pope of the year 1000, Sylvester II, the smartest man ever to wear the papal tiara, received his knowledge of mathematics (he introduced Arabic numerals to the West) and astronomy (ditto the astrolabe) from corresponding with Hasdai ibn Shaprut, the Jewish polymath, physician and diplomat in the caliph’s court in Cordoba.

"Stimulating, encyclopedic and often downright funny, this is a book worth remembering. As Collins writes in his epilogue: “If we forget where we came from, we will simply drift into the future with nothing to offer it.”

Toronto Globe & Mail, 15 February 2013
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The Birth of the West
is now available in all good bookshops in the US, Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland, and via online bookshop sites like Amazon, Booktopia and The Book Depository in the rest of the world. In Australia you can also purchase the book from Paul Collins. Send a cheque for Australian$25 plus $10 for postage and packing to PO Box 4053, Manuka, ACT 2603 making sure you include a return address.