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Dominion by Tom Holland

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I highly recommend it!

With his typically erudite but engaging prose style (which he has honed from past works like Persian Fire, his history of the Greco-Persian wars and Rubicon: The Triumph and the Tragedy of the Roman Republic), along with much acerbic wit and warmth, Holland ventures into an incisive analysis of his guiding theme - the story of how those in the modern West came to think as they do.

The result is a study both bold and sweeping in scale, weaved together through extended commentary on a series of (seemingly) disparate historical vignettes. These range from the Ancient Greek Hellespont, Achaemind Persia and Roman Galatia to Christian proto-socialists in fourteenth century Bohemia, Winstanley’s Diggers who communalised land on St. George’s Hill in 17th century Surrey, the Beatles with their iconic anthem All You Need Is Love during the 1960s sexual, flower-power revolution and the ‘woke’ #MeTo culture war of our own decade.

The vignettes actually coalesce into a single grand chronological narrative across twenty-one chapters organised under three broad headings – Antiquity, Christendom and Modernitas. A lesser scribe might have been swamped by the sheer scale and detail of the subject matter. It is a testament to Holland’s skill as a writer that this long and winding odyssey ends up being such a fun and exhilarating ride.

This article is a chapter from the book, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind and now available for purchase in UK bookstores (I don't think it will be published in the US until October). Some excerpts:

https://www.historyextra.com/period/medieval/tom-holland-taborites-who-religious-sect-challenged-holy-roman-empire/?utm_source=Twitter%20referral&utm_medium=t.co&utm_campaign=Bitly

Quote


Christ’s communists: the radical religious sect that challenged the Holy Roman Empire

Six centuries ago in Bohemia, a dissenter army led by a one-eyed warrior waged war on the Holy Roman Empire. Tom Holland tells the story of the Taborites, whose creed was to reject money, property… and the Antichrist

There had never been anywhere quite like it. The castle, perched on a spit of rock above the Lužnice river, had been abandoned decades before, and the blackened ruins of the settlement that had once surrounded it were choked by weeds. The rubble had to be cleared, and a new town built from scratch. There was an urgent need of fortifications. The nights were bitterly cold. Yet still the refugees came. All through March 1420, they made the trek, drawn from every class of society, from every corner of Bohemia (a kingdom that’s now part of the Czech Republic). By the end of the month, camped out amid tents and half-built perimeter walls, there were women with their children, in flight from burning villages; tavern-keepers from Prague and peasants armed with flails; knights, clerics, labourers and vagrants. All shared in the common danger – and all shared a common status. Every man was called brother, and every woman sister. There were no hierarchies, no wages, no taxes. New arrivals were obliged to hand over their possessions, which were shared out according to need. Private property was illegal. All debts were forgiven. The poor, it seemed, had inherited the earth.

The town, the first ever to be founded on quasi-communist principles, was called Tabor by its inhabitants. The name broadcast a defiant message to its enemies. In the Bible, it was recorded that Jesus had climbed a mountain to pray. “And as he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.” The site of this miracle had long been identified by scholars with a mountain in Galilee: Tabor. The radiance of the divine had suffused its summit, and heaven had been joined with earth. Now it was happening again. As lords laboured alongside peasants, toiling to provide Tabor with an impregnable screen of fortifications, they were not just constructing a stronghold, but aiming to set the entire world on fresh foundations.

Tabor had no hierarchies, no wages, no taxes. Private property was illegal. All debts were forgiven. The poor, it seemed, had inherited the earth. For centuries, the immense edifice of the Catholic church, too, had stood as a monument to this ambition. It had been raised in defiance of earthly monarchs, and fashioned to serve the needs of all the Christian people. But now the lava of its radicalism had begun to calcify; the papal order had become the status quo.

Nothing, perhaps, was more debilitating to the claims of the Roman church to be the bride of Christ than one enduring abomination: a papal schism. Back in 1378, two rival popes had been elected. The schism proved impossible to heal. In 1409, a council of bishops and university masters, meeting in Pisa, declared both rival popes deposed, and crowned a new candidate – but this, far from delivering Christendom a single pope, had merely left it stuck with three. Small wonder, confronted by such a scandal, that a few bold souls, pushing at the very limits of what it was acceptable to think, began to contemplate a nightmarish possibility: that the papacy, far from holding the keys to the gates of heaven, might in truth be an agent of hell.

Seduced by earthly glory

It was in Prague that these sparks of subversion had ignited the most explosive reaction. The city had long been a tinder box. The Bohemian nobility chafed at being subject to Holy Roman Emperors who hailed from Germany. Czech-speaking scholars at the university, similarly disadvantaged, nurtured their own mood of resentment.

Meanwhile, out in the slums, the resentment was of the rich. The most popular preachers were those who condemned the wealth of monasteries adorned with gold and sumptuous fittings, and demanded a return to the stern simplicity of the early days of the church. The Christian people, they warned, had taken a desperately wrong turn.

Festering resentments

“The time of greatest suffering, prophesied by Christ in his scriptures, the apostles in their letters, the prophets, and Saint John in the Apocalypse, is now at hand; it has begun; it stands at the gates!” wrote one polemicist in 1420. Five years on from the burning of Hus, the Taborites gathered in their rocky stronghold confident that they would soon be seeing him again – and all the risen saints of God. Far from extinguishing the flames of subversion, the Council of Constance had served only to stoke them further. Not even the council’s success in once again installing a single pope on the throne of Saint Peter had been able to redeem its reputation in Bohemia. In the wake of the execution of Hus, denunciations of the papacy as the Antichrist began to be made openly across Prague. Of Sigismund as well – for it was presumed that it was as a result of his treachery that Hus had been delivered up to the flames. Then, in 1419, an attempted crackdown by conservatives precipitated revolt. Hussites, named for the executed preacher, stormed the city hall, flung their opponents out of its windows, and seized control of churches across Prague.

It was out on the mountains, though, that the true revolution was coming to a head. There, when the faithful assembled in flight from their homes, it was in the conviction that Prague was Babylon, an evil and debauched city. Nowhere was this more evident than behind the rising walls of Tabor. Labouring in the mud, mixing mortar, hauling stone, those who had flocked there knew what was approaching. Christ was destined to return within months. All sinners would perish. The reign of the saints would begin. “Only God’s elect were to remain on earth – those who had fled to the mountains.”

The Taborites were hardly the first Christians to believe themselves living in the shadow of Apocalypse. The novelty lay rather in the scale of the crisis that had prompted their imaginings: one in which all the traditional underpinnings of society, all the established frameworks of authority, appeared fatally compromised. Confronted by a church that was the swollen body of the Antichrist, and an emperor guilty of blatant treachery, the Taborites pledged themselves to revolution. It was not enough, though, merely to return to the ideals of the early church: to live equally as brothers and sisters, to share everything in common. The filth of the world beyond Tabor, where those who had chosen not to flee to the mountains still wallowed in corruption, had to be swept away. It was not only emperors and popes whom the Taborites aspired to eliminate. All those who had scorned to redeem themselves from the fallen world were sinners. “Each of the faithful ought to wash his hands in the blood of Christ’s foes,” wrote one chronicler.

Many Hussites, confronted by this brutal refusal to turn the other cheek, were appalled. “Heresy and tyrannical cruelty,” one of them termed it. The summer of 1420, though, was no time for the moderates to stand on their principles. The peril was too great. In May, at the head of a great army of crusaders summoned from across Christendom, Sigismund advanced on Hussite Prague. The Taborites, leaving behind only a skeleton garrison, marched to the city’s relief. At their head rode a general of genius: Jan Žižka, one-eyed and 44 years old. That July, looking to break the besiegers’ attempt to starve Prague into submission, he launched a surprise attack on the crusaders so devastating that Sigismund had no choice but to withdraw.

Blinded by success

Further victories quickly followed. Žižka proved irresistible. Not even the loss in 1421 of his one good eye to an arrow served to handicap him. Innovative and brutal in equal measure, Žižka was the living embodiment of the Taborite revolution. Noblemen on their armoured chargers he met with rings of armoured wagons, hauled from muddy farmyards and manned by peasants equipped with early hand-held firearms; monks he would order burned at the stake, or else personally club to death. Never once did the general meet with defeat. By 1424, when he finally fell sick and died, all of Bohemia was under Taborite rule.

On his sickbed, so his enemies reported, Žižka had ordered the Taborites to flay his corpse, feed his flesh to carrion beasts, and fashion a drum out of his skin. “Then, with this drum in the lead, they should go to war. Their enemies would turn to flight as soon as they heard its voice.” The anecdote was tribute both to Žižka’s fearsome reputation, and to the continuing success of his followers on the battlefield after his death.

Žižka ordered the Taborites to flay his corpse, feed his flesh to carrion beasts, and fashion a drum out of his skin. Yet in truth, the Taborite drum had begun to sound a muffled beat even while Žižka was alive. In the summer of 1420, in the wake of the great victory over Sigismund, it was still possible for the Taborites to believe that Christ’s return was imminent. Readying Prague for this arrival, they systematically targeted symbols of privilege. Monasteries were levelled; the bushy moustaches much favoured by the Bohemian elite forcibly shaved off; the bones of a recently deceased king dug up, and crowned with straw...

Yet even though the fall of Tabor itself in 1452 signalled the final extinction of their movement, the yearnings that had inspired them lived on. The Taborites were certainly not the last to call for the poor to inherit the earth. Three and a half centuries after the Taborites had mockingly crowned the skull of a king with straw, French revolutionaries consigned the corpse of another king, Louis XVI, to a pauper’s grave in Paris. “Woe to you who are rich.” Christ’s words might almost have been the manifesto as well of those who, in 1917, overthrew the Russian government and laboured to establish a paradise on earth.

Marxists, just as the Taborites had done, believed that history was proceeding on an implacable course, and that the hour of salvation was at hand. Contemptuous of religion though Jacobins and Bolsheviks might have been, they were ultimately no less Christian in their inspiration for all that. The spirit of Tabor, long extinguished though it might appear to have been, was in truth very far from dead.

Tom Holland’s latest book, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, is published by Little, Brown. He will be discussing the influence of Christianity at our 2019 History Weekends in Chester and Winchester

 

 

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1 hour ago, Teng Ai Hui said:

I thought he would have been too busy with the Spider-Man movies to do all that research and writing.

Its funny because the historian 'Tom Holland' has been the but of this long-running joke with the Spiderman kid for years now, and while he took it in good humour at first, I think he's really tiring off it now based upon his Twitter feed!

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Thank you for copying out that long passage from the book.  We, well, I at least, continually feel and see the lacks in my European history when it comes to the events and figures of even Middle Europe, not to mention eastern Europe and the Balkans.  It was late when I began to understand this.

And not long after his death, Mehmed would finally take the Apple for the Ottomans and all things turn again.

Additionally your post got me thinking it would be nice to have a thread here where people could do what you did -- post about illuminating, enlightening works of history, to share with the rest of us, who may or may not know of these works.  I know for instance that many of us who read and post here have read Roger Crowley's books, and Marc Morris's and so on, but I had read this one.

It could be a thread like the one started for Mysteries and Crime and Thrillers, for instance?

 

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5 hours ago, Zorral said:

Thank you for copying out that long passage from the book.  We, well, I at least, continually feel and see the lacks in my European history when it comes to the events and figures of even Middle Europe, not to mention eastern Europe and the Balkans.  It was late when I began to understand this.

And not long after his death, Mehmed would finally take the Apple for the Ottomans and all things turn again.

Additionally your post got me thinking it would be nice to have a thread here where people could do what you did -- post about illuminating, enlightening works of history, to share with the rest of us, who may or may not know of these works.  I know for instance that many of us who read and post here have read Roger Crowley's books, and Marc Morris's and so on, but I had read this one.

It could be a thread like the one started for Mysteries and Crime and Thrillers, for instance?

 

Get on it!

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Tom's a bit hit and miss for me. I enjoyed rubicon but was a bit confused/disappointed with In the shadow of the sword. I felt like he had too much in the game with his time spent on islam and throwing shade on the origins - although I did appreciate him pointing out that all religions come from/adapt prior ones. It felt like he was saying they didn't conquer most of north africa but they clearly did. Unless he meant people from that region conquered North Africa and Islam retroactively claimed it was done in their name?

The new book looks interesting and it does sound like Holland's approach to religion is generally from an atheist POV in how it shapes history than him being against a particular one which is reassuring. 

As for the Hollands you can't get more Tom Holland than Tom Hollander so they need to get him to decide what the pecking order is.

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19 hours ago, Astromech said:

Get on it!

If people would be interested in sharing the works of historians, both academic and independent scholars, that impress them and why, I'd be happy to! 

 

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4 hours ago, Zorral said:

If people would be interested in sharing the works of historians, both academic and independent scholars, that impress them and why, I'd be happy to! 

 

You can only truly gauge interest by starting such a topic. I'd be interested, but history seems to be my go to reading subject. 

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I'd be up for a history thread. There's usually discussion about history podcasts in the podcast thread but i think it could move over into a general history thread 

I was wondering if max Hastings Vietnam war book is typical of his style? While it was still worth it for the gems i found it to be far too detailed. I think i prefer history with a bit more narrative/story.

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