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The Birth of the West: Rome, Germany, France, and the Creation of Europe in the Tenth Century Hardcover – February 12, 2013

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Under the Carolingian rulers, and especially under Charlemagne, medieval western Europe enjoyed a period of relative political stability and a modest cultural renaissance. After the death of Charlemagne, in 814, much of the area reverted to internecine internal wars while Viking raiders plundered both coastal and inland regions. Collins, an ordained Catholic priest and radio and TV presenter, asserts that the tenth century brought order out of this chaos, transformed the basic institutions of medieval society, and laid the foundations for the future nation-states of western Europe. Although the apogee of the temporal power of the Papacy would come two centuries later, Collins illustrates how the church played an essential role in the achievements of the tenth century, which included forming a largely successful working relationship with Germanic kings. Collins provides a broad panorama of the age, presenting characters great and small, including kings, magnates, popes, and peasants. This is a well-done study suitable for both scholars and general readers. --Jay Freeman


Thomas Keneally
“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.”

Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“A lively, full-to-bursting history of the turbulent 10th century in Europe…Collins presents chaotic upheaval across Europe in an organized and riveting fashion.”

Jay Rubenstein, Professor of History, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and author of Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse“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.”

Publishers Weekly
“Western Europe claws its way out of the Dark Ages—just barely—in this hair-raising history.… 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.”

“Collins provides a broad panorama of the age, presenting characters great and small, including kings, magnates, popes, and peasants. This is a well-done study suitable for both scholars and general readers.”

“He makes a lively… 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.”

Dallas Morning News
“Very readable… 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…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.”

Shelf Awareness
”An engaging account of an often overlooked era.”

National Catholic Reporter
“Australian Collins, historian and former priest, has a masterly touch throughout, for he writes the book on the several levels. He describes Europe, physically. He tells us what we are looking at, the stage set of history, the extensive woodlands, the major massifs and plateaus. All the while he is populating this landscape. This is truly history from the bottom up, layering the terrain…Collins’ history is telling that though the ages were dark, not all the lights had been turned off. What we are receiving from Collins’ sure hand is what happened after the fall of Rome…This is an intriguing 395-page read that gradually comes together at the end as Collins pulls on all the threads to tie into a fine knot.”

Shepherd Express
“Paul Collins as he shines a lantern into the Dark Ages. Whether or not Collins is correct in naming the 10th century as thesignificant turning point for Western Civilization, he uncovers many fascinating details.”

“The narrative is interesting and on the whole easy to follow… Collins has excellent section on landscape, battle tactics, and weapons as well as vivid biographies of key players, such as the Empress Theophano, Gerbert of Aurillac, and Liutprand of Cremona.”

Otago Daily News (New Zealand)
“You don’t need a history degree to venture into the story Collins unfolds. Indeed, his bubbly writing style, laced with humour and spice, turns the book into something of a page-turner. A particular strength is the chapters on social history, in which Collins brings the 10th century world into vivid focus. Throughout, he delves into a surprising cornucopia of primary sources to back up his arguments.”

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs; 1St Edition edition (February 12, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 161039013X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1610390132
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.4 x 1.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #783,778 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

36 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Dean Mixon on May 5, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book needs to be read twice, back to back, in order to fix the author's portrait of regions and, especially, people in ones mind. Mr. Collins starts his narrative in Italy, then moves to France, then to Germany, then to England, Scotland, Ireland, Spain, then back to Italy but this time as part of as part of the Holy Roman Empire. Along the way there are sidelong glances at various important people (Liutprand, for example) before Mr. Collins gets down to really focusing on their lives, which leaves you wishing you had had a fuller understanding of the individual earlier in the book when he/she was first introduced. The same is somewhat true of the "countries" he visits. Each time he passes through, for example, what became France, he adds more colors to the canvas. My main takeaways from the book are (1) that the Saxons saved Europe from anarchy after the collapse of the Carolingian empire, (2) that an emphasis on individualism started in the 10th century, not during the Enlightenment (as I previously thought) and (3) that the Greek classics were available in Europe much earlier than I has thought and did not come to Europe exclusively through Muslim Spain.
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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Chad Cloman on July 28, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Other reviewers have summarized this book, so I'll skip that and cover what I liked and didn't like.

From the title and the blurbs, I expected this to be an analysis of the birth of the West. That wasn't the case. Instead, the author does a very good job of presenting a detailed historical snapshot of Europe in the 10th century. This period is the time when the West as we know it was born, so we get some insight into the birth. But certainly the book is sorely lacking in analysis about the birth of the West. Despite that, I like the book -- I just had to adjust my expectations.

Three minor negatives:

1) The level of detail is significant. If you're looking for overarching themes or events, this is not the book for you. The author will grind through an entire chapter of minutia, then summarize it with a single sentence that tells how it relates to the birth of the West.

2) The author lacks objectivity. Periodically his personal beliefs will intrude into the narrative in the form of descriptions, assumptions, or blanket dismissals of certain points of view.

3) The author makes occasional assertions about the validity or invalidity of other historians' opinions without presenting the evidence or the arguments. ("So-and-so believes such-and-such, but he's wrong. Next topic.") We are left to assume that the author has weighed all of the arguments and found the right answer, but he doesn't give us the evidence to be confident of that. So while the book is very well researched, I would not consider it to be a scholarly work.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Birth of the West and recommend it with five stars.
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54 of 69 people found the following review helpful By D. Graves on February 17, 2013
Format: Hardcover
As a lay genealogist, it has always been frustrating to try to determine where distant ancestors emanated from just before biographical records were kept. Just recently, the advent of affordable DNA testing allows one to actually see where one's ancestors came from, geographically, over the millennia preceding records. As Americans, we identify ourselves as being of German ancestry, or French, or Italian. But what does that mean? These are merely the names of nation-states, lines on a modern map. What this excellent new book does is give both a grand overview of the creation of what we now call Europe and those nations, and, most interestingly, a thorough view of the peoples who inhabited these lands and where they came from.

For example, many Italian-Americans who have genealogical DNA testing done will find that some of their ancestors - in the time period covered by this book - came from Africa. How did that come about, they wonder. It is merely a small slice of what the author, Paul Collins, offers, but he explains in-depth how invading Moors stayed in Southern Europe for hundreds of years, imposing their culture (and more) in many areas. There are myriad other ethnic and geopolitical aspects to the areas that became Europe and its states. It is, in fact, a complicated story, and this is not an easy read, at 500 pages, but it is fascinating to see where "we" came from in this way.
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Format: Paperback
I learned a lot from this book, reading it was a very pleasant experience, I am glad I bought it and it is definitely a keeper. Still, it could be a little bit improved when the time comes for a new edition; Below, my more detailed impressions.

First, let's say that reading this book is like making a trip in time one thousand years ago - and it is a very pleasant voyage of discovery indeed, as the writing is very good and there is virtually no filler at all. In fact, this book is full of hard data and precious information - sometimes quite surprising but nevertheless real and which will probably NOT always please the politically correct crowd...

This book describes the major event in European history, which was the great recovery of civilization, roughly between 930 and 1025, after a very, VERY dark 840-930 period - in fact this period of darkness was almost as bad as the collapse of civilization in years 470-730, following the fall of Western Roman Empire.
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