Book Review: The Last Apocalypse by James Reston, Jr. Essay

Book Review: The Last Apocalypse by James Reston, Jr.

            In the Acknowledgements to The Last Apocalypse Reston describes his goal for this book, “Could I tell the story of 999 A.D - Book Review: The Last Apocalypse by James Reston, Jr. Essay introduction. through a series of interlock portraits?” (Reston 278). He intends to illustrate important historical events by using a series of writings that will lead from one leader to another. For example, he uses Olaf Trygvesson, winner of the Battle of Maldon as a connection to develop his study of Norway, Iceland, Greenland, and New Found-land.

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Reston a two step process to gain information about this time period. First, he spent at least eight months doing literary and historical about the period. Having prepared himself with scholastic information he then traveled extensively to visit many of the sites and talked to local experts and historians, important to the end of the first millennium.

It is evident that this book was occasioned by the end of the twentieth century since the book was published in 1998. It is an interesting process to consider the end of the previous millennium in light of the end of the second. Just as the second millennium ended with dire predictions of massive computer and system failures due to the expected Y2K problems, Y1K ended with many people ended with expectations of an apocalypse ending the world. It is amusing to realize that, for all of our advances in technology, our greater awareness of the universe and our sophistication, we still have the same basic fears as our ancestors one thousand years ago.

Reston has increased this writer’s knowledge of western civilization by shining a light on the people and events of this time period. Prior to reading this book, this writer’s knowledge of western civilization made the huge leap in time from the fall of Rome after being sacked by barbarians in 476 A.D. to the Norman Conquest in 1066 A.D. The intervening six centuries was explained away by calling them the Dark Ages. This book extends one’s understanding back, not only a few years, but it fills in the geographical margins of Europe. Even within the previous study and instruction information was been limited to the later, more powerful states: England, France, and, to a lesser extent, Spain. Even within this time and location, ones awareness was limited to recognition of existence of the major powers, but little else. History seemed to be treading water, waiting until the European powers were ready to begin exploration of the world, particularly North America.

In the Prologue Reston provides more information about what is intentions are. While doing his research, he found that there was very little actual history as it is known today. Instead of written sources, he found that much of the available information was oral. He likens the difference between the saga he is writing and conventional history as being the difference between  a painting and a photography (Reston, 6). He makes an interesting point when he writes that about this time there were movements throughout the margins of Europe where battles and military movements occurred that affected more recent history. He notes that at about the end of the first millennium Europe was in many was “Christianized” almost all at once in Scandinavia, Spain, Russia, and the Balkans as a result of these movements. He uses the term “Christianity” not just as a religious movement at this time, though it certainly is that, but also “represented civilization, and learning and nationhood against the darkness of heathenism, illiteracy, and tribal chaos” (Reston, 7). As a consequence the “religion of Christ, the King, meant dignity and stature. The change was, in short, apocalyptic” (Reston, 7). This conclusion seems contrived and opportunistic. It feels as if Reston had decided to do a book dealing with the end of the tenth century and was determined to find an apocalypse to justify his concept of The Last Apocalypse. In this spirit Reston writes of a series of homilies, the Blickling homilies, distributed about twenty years before the Battle of Maldon. At the time, Mass was said and performed in Latin so it was largely unintelligible to most worshippers. The homily however was in the vernacular. Within these homilies was one that was called “The End of the World is Near.”  This homily predicted that time was coming to an end (Reston, 11-12)

In the prologue Reston describes the Battle of Maldon that was recorded in a poem that is recorded in an epic poem “second in fame among early English poems, only to Beowulf” (Reston, 2), but unfamiliar to this writer. This poem writes of a battle occurring in 951 B. C. where a group of Viking warriors, under Olaf Trygvesson defeated the English army led by an overlord of East Anglia named Byrhtnoth.  Reston visits the site of the battle and reads this poem aloud. He shouts the insults and taunts the English and Vikings yelled at each other. The sheep, the only inhabitants, at the time of Reston’s visit were unimpressed. He writes of the carefully laid plan of Byrhtnoth that is quickly abandoned when he is tricked by the Vikings. As a consequence, Byrhtnoth loses and arm, and as Reston finds out a head, though the missing head was not noted in the poem (Reston, 11).

In Chapter One, Reston links to Olaf Trygvesson, one of the leaders of the victorious Vikings. Reston describes Trygvesson’s upbringing. When Trygvesson was a young child his father, a petty king in the area Oslofjord (presumably modern day Oslo) was murdered. Olaf and his mother fled the area and eventually intended to go to Russia. Off the coast of Estonia, Vikings captured the ship and sold Olaf into slavery. He served as a slave for six years until a cousin recognized him and purchased Olaf. The cousin took Olaf, who had developed into a handsome, strong boy, with him to the court of Vladimir I where Olaf became a favorite of the queen. At the age of twelve Vladimir put him in command of twelve ships and sent him into battle. He was very successful and became renown as a warrior. With Vladimir’s blessing he was allowed to return to his homeland (Reston14-15).

After his victory at Maldon, he continued to engage in raids against areas of England until the Saxons offered him tribute to go away. Olaf accepted the money, but continued to demand more. He was wounded in a mutiny and upon recovery he was baptized a Christian. In 993 A.D. he married an Irish princess and shortly after launched an expedition to the Orkney Islands which he subdued and forced Christianity up on them. In 996 A.D.  Trygvesson was crowned king of all Norway. He continued to use his position to forcibly convert pagans to Christianity. Norway where he was ultimately was crowned King of Norway. As a convert, he pursued Christianity with a vengeance, often forcing people to convert or be put to death. By 997 A.D. Trygvesson had claimed all of Norway for Christianity and began to move westward (Reston, 16-22).

It’s interesting to look at Olaf’s approach to Christianity. He converted to Christianity after a prophecy of a seer turned out to be true. Having made this decision he tried to force his beliefs on everyone else. This is not unusual even today, or perhaps especially today, but the way Reston describes these events, it doesn’t appear to have been a religious experience as much as it was a political experience, much as if he were to decide to be a Democrat (i.e., Christian) instead of a Republican (i.e., pagan). It is interesting too, because most of the depictions of Vikings, at least in movies, are as heathen invaders raping and pillaging the Christian kingdoms of Northern Europe. One does not think of them as being Christian missionaries converting pagans to Christianity.

Reston continues his narrative in chapter two by establishing a link to Thorgeir the Lawspeaker. Olaf Trygvesson continued his “missionary” work westward coming up against the greatest resistance in Iceland. Trygvesson’s first attempts at converting Iceland were made by missionaries who reported they had be received “in a most hospitable way” (Reston, 36). Faced with this failure, Trygvesson made the mistake of sending Bishop Thangbrand to Iceland. Thangbrand was under orders to convert Iceland within two years. Thangbrand met with as much or more resistance as the earlier missionaries. He used violence to overwhelm the local people and on occasion succeeded in converting them, but ultimately was forced to flee Iceland (Reston, 37-40).

Gizur the White took the next stab at converting the Icelanders, seeking to still Trygvesson’s anger by offering to be the king’s representative and to approach the Icelanders with a more gentle approach. In 1000 A.D. Gizur the White met with the people of Iceland at an annual Parliament held on Thingvellir, a traditional meeting place in Western Iceland. Up until this point, an Icelander who converted to Christianity was forced “to read oneself out of society, to disqualify oneself for leadership, to spread shame among one’s kin, to renounce the community . . .” (Reston, 45). To remedy the reprisals against Christians Gizur the White proposed that the annual lawspeaker change the laws to allow for Christian conversion. In the year 1000 A.D. the lawgiver was Thorgeir. The proclamation of the lawspeaker was the law and there was no appeal. After listening to Gizur the White, Thorgeir declared at all Icelanders would be Christian and shall no longer engage in idolatrous practices and rituals in public, but not in private. Therefore, Iceland became Christian all at once in 1000 A.D. (Reston. 41-48).

It is interesting to note that the Norse gods, both in Norway and Iceland were actually worshipped and not treated as myths which is a common way of thinking of them today. It is difficult to imagine they were real to anyone. However they suited the Norsemen. They might be persuaded to believe in Christ, but for specific purposes they still wanted a god dedicated to that purpose instead of one all-powerful god that was able to do everything. When these men went to battle, they might pray to Christ as they prepared to leave, but in the actual battler, the wanted Thor with them. They wanted Valkyries, not angels. When the died in battle they wanted the robust afterlife of Valhalla, not the placid Christian heaven (Reston, 49).

Several years before 1000 A.D. , Erik the Red had been banished from Iceland and sailed to Greenland where he established a colony that thrived. It became the westernmost outpost of Europe. It was from Greenland that Leif Eriksson, son of Erik the Red sailed westward and founded a settlement in present day North America that he named Vinland Reston, 52-56).

Reston returns to the mainland and to Olaf Trygvesson in chapter three. At this point Trygvesson was thirty years old and had had four wives. His first wife had been the Polish princess Geira who had died three years into their marriage. He next married Gyda the feisty Irish widow (Reston, 57) who disappeared from narrative when Trygvesson left Ireland and returned to Norway by way of the Orkneys. Trygvesson’s fourth wife was the “trophy wife” Gudrun who had attempted to kill Trygvesson on their wedding night. In an effort to provide a queen, Trygvesson courted Sigrid, widow of a king. Sigrid was a pagan and uninterested in Christianity. During the courting process, Trygvesson slapped Sigrid with a glove, a grievous insult in the day. She plotted her revenge and developed “a lusty contempt for his [Trygvesson’s] religion” (Reston, 71). Despite her feelings, Christianity was approaching from the east as well. Sweden, under King Olaf, Sigrid’s son, had converted as had the Russian kingdom of Vladimir I. Ultimately Sigrid left Sweden, taking her feelings with her, in favor of her now man, King Svein Forkbeard of Denmark (Reston 71-77).

During medieval times Denmark was “the most populous, the richest, the best organized, and the most powerful of realms” (Reston, 78). In the eighth century they had built a wall designed to keep Charlemagne and his armies out. Toward the end of the century Denmark turned toward England in hopes of conquering it and gaining additional wealth. Vikings with Danish among them were on the move by then. They had entered France where they conquered peoples and “the Christians are massacred, burned and pillaged” (Reston,81). The conquered that area that came to be called Normandy, a corruption of Norway. When William the Conqueror attached England in 1066, it was in many ways only the most recent Viking invasion that had been occurring for nearly two hundred years. By the time the Viking invasions had come to an end, they had attacked further south including Lisbon, Gibraltar, Spain and Italy.

In the last half of the tenth century German emperors were strong and looking for land and more wealth as well. In 962 A.D. Otto the Great had conquered Italy and was crowned by the Pope as the Holy Roman Empire (Reston 84-85). His son, Otto II, turned northward and demanded that Denmark convert to Christianity. The King of Denmark, Harald Bluetooth refused and war resulted. The German army (Saxons) were repulsed even though that had combined with Polish forces that contained a youth Olaf Trygvesson. Eventually the Germans prevailed and Denmark converted to Christianity (Reston, 83-85).

It is really interesting to see the web of contacts involving Olaf Trygvesson. In his life he and his supporters had come in contact with much of Europe including those countries mentioned above as well as England, Ireland, Scotland, Russia, Iceland, Greenland, and North American. Contact, of course, should be defined as invaded and sometimes conquered the people of these countries. Each of these countries were changed by the occupation of these Viking invaders. At times it seems like the Vikings were the catalyst that sparked the development of modern Europe and all of the resulting consequences.

Reston returns to Svein Forkbeard and Ethelred the Unready in the last half of chapter four. In 978 A.D. the English King Edward was murdered and succeeded by his thirteen-year-old brother Ethelred. King Harald Bluetooth was long in the tooth and had an ambitious son named Svein. King Harald banished his son and provided him with a small fleet of three ships. Over the next few years Svein increased this amount to about thirty ships. Much of his time was spent attacking citizens of Denmark. His father attempted to arrest his son but was killed in the process (actually it was a pistol shot to the buttocks that caused the king to bleed to death). Svein ascended to the Danish throne. Within thirteen years Svein had conquered England. In the meantime he had accompanied Olaf Trygvesson at the Battle of Maldon. When Trygvesson went to Ireland, Svein went to Wales and the Isle of Man where he gathered English spoils of war. By 1000 A.D. Svein had conquered Ethelred the Unready. In 1013 A.D. after power had increased, he declared his right to the English throne. He was encouraged in his actions by Sigrid who claimed his success was due to the Norse gods. In 1014 A.D. Svein died and was succeeded by his Christian son, Canute (Reston, 86-97).

The soap opera on connections to Olaf Trygvesson continues when Tyri, daughter of Harald Bluetooth and sister of Svein Forkbeard married Olaf Trygvesson after a brief and unsuccessful marriage to the Polish king. Queen Tyri taunted Trygvesson into an invasion of Poland. This infuriated Queen Sigrid who encouraged her husband to mount an attack against Olaf Trygvesson. At the Battle of Svold King Olaf Trygvesson was forced to jump into the sea and was presumed drowned. However, according to legend he was rescued and discovered some fifty years later living as a monk near the upper Euphrates. The monk sent a knife and belt back to England where Einar the Bowman confirmed this was the knife of Olaf Trygvesson. It is uncertain therefore whether or not Queen Sigrid had exacted her revenge for her insult with the death of Olaf Trygvesson (Reston, 98-111).

In Chapter Six: Al Mansor, the Avenging Moor Reston shifts his attention to the south to Spain. Throughout the second half of the first millennium, European Christians such as Charlemagne and the German Emperors fought with Muslims in Spain. The Muslims, or Saracens as they were called fought to rid the Iberian Peninsula of Christians.

It is interesting to note that by 900 A.D. Cordoba had become a sophisticate Muslim city. During the reign of Al Hakkam II between 961 and 976 A.D.  the central library there housed more than 400,000 books. Throughout Spain there were more than seventy public libraries. At the same time through out Christian Europe there were no public libraries (Reston 119).  During the so-called Dark Ages, Spain had advanced under Muslim influence. Art, science, mathematics flourished (Reston, 111-123). The influence of Islam does not mean there wasn’t a Christian presence in Spain. Al Hakkam II’s wife, Subh, was a Basque who had been born into slavery and raised as a Christian. Throughout Spain there were Christian leaders and Christian communities.

A man soon to be know as Al Monsor became a favorite of Subh and soon grew in power in Al Hakkam’s court. After Hakkam’s death in 976 A.D. As chamberlain to the new ten-year-old king Al Monsor continued to consolidate his power. He undertook to weaken the abilities of the young king by making him soft and feminine. In time he had succeeding creating a young boy who was completed unsuited to rule. He launched military campaigns against Christian strongholds. After his second successful military campaign, he changed his name and title from Ibn Abi Amir to Al Monsor, the Illustrious Victor, Defender of the Muslim People, Protected by God (Reston, 129). Throughout the 980s Al Manor pursued a war against Christianity. He attacked Leon and Barcelona.

In 997 A.D. it appeared certain that Al Monsor would drive the Christian from the entire Iberian Peninsula. He visited the holy place at Santiago, the most holy Christian site in Spain. Legend has it that at Santiago he was frightened by a thunder bolt that nearly struck him. He quickly decided to leave this holy spot, but he and his men were afflicted with diarrhea and many died before they could return to Cordoba (Reston, 143-144).

In 1000 A.D. a new, Christian king arose that would challenge Al Monsor’s supremacy. A new king, later called Sancho the Great, had come to power in Leon and united the kingdoms of Navarre, Leon, and Castile behind him the oppose the power of the Anti-Christ, Al Monsor. In 1002 A.D. these force met Al Monsor near a village called Caltanazor. The fighting was intense on the first day. The armies broke it off only when it became dark. When none of his commanders returned to him that night, Al Monsor realized how devastating his losses were and ordered a retreat. During the second day of the battle Al Monsor died. With his death, Islam slowly withered in Spain (Reston, 146).

In chapter 7, Reston concludes his trip through Spain by writing about Little Sancho and Sancho the Great. Within a year of Al Monsor’s death, other leaders died. Otto III, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Pope Sylvester II had died. Little Sancho and subsequent leaders of Spain proved ineffective. Over the next few years Sancho the Great increased his power and was recognized as the supreme commander in northern Spain. He was a Christian king and began to move southward. In 1035 A.D. he declared himself King of Spain. He moved into France and reached out to Cluny where he took monks from the Abbey as advisors. With his movement to the north he consolidated Aragon and Castile into what would become modern day Spain. (Reston, 156-161).

Next, Reston moves to Budapest where he searches for information about the Magyars, a tribe from Asia Minor that had lived among the Khazars. According to their origin legend, they descended from wandering hunter. These people, the legend goes, lived without women until they encountered dancing girls from what is now Iran. The children of this union became the angry and militant people the Hungarians. These people settled in the Danube River Valley, but during the last quarter of the tenth century began to venture out into Central Europe where the rampaged against the Christians who lived there. Unlike the Vikings these people did not seek plunder as their primary object. In 900 A.D. they defeated King Berengar I and killed twenty thousand of his solders. They continued their rampage for the next fifty years. In the Battle of Lechfeld in 955 A.D. The Hungarians were defeated by forces led by Otto I of Saxony.

Apocalypse prophets viewed this as the horsemen of the apocalypse. The seven tribes that made up the Hungarians were thought to be the seven-headed beast mentioned in Revelation. Otto I became Otto the Great and was proclaimed the Defender of Christianity. He converted his kingdom to Christianity. In 962 A.D. Pope John XII crowned Otto as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

In Chapter Nine King Stephen of Hungary determined to become part of the Christian fashion that was sweeping through Europe.  He appealed to Rome that he might be crowned by the Pope as King of Hungary so that he might work for Christianity. Sylvester II complied. King Stephen set about organizing the Christian church in his country. Among other things the pilgrimage to the Holy Lands a safer journey. According to Reston (198) the conversion of Hungary and the subsequent protection of routes to Jerusalem laid the groundwork for the Crusades that were to follow.

In chapters ten and eleven, Reston continues the development of Christianity throughout Europe. The once numerous small kingdoms slow developed into first regional and then national groups of people. The Catholic Church which had become corrupt in the tenth century found leaders in the eleventh century who were not just interested in their personal gain, but about the advancement of the Church. More and more leaders became Christian and declared their subjects Christian as well. The Catholic Church had begun to edge its way into politics by declaring support for leaders who declared themselves Christians. The Holy Roman Empire was created. The declarations of Rome decided political issues. Kings who lost favor with the Pope were replaced by others who swore to be more compliant.

The Christian movement progressed into Asia Minor.  Energized by the Roman Church Christians moved into the Byzantine where they came into contact with the Orthodox Christian Church. In 972 A.D.  Theophano, niece of the Byzantine Emperor, was sent to Otto II. The two married in Rome and Theophano soon set about accumulating power. She had herself declared co-emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. When Otto II died, Theophano became a subtle and effective diplomat. She feared invasion from the Vikings and so allied herself with Harald Bluetooth. She began to make alliances with Hungarians, Poles and Russians.  Due to her efforts, Modern Europe was formed (Reston 243).

In 996 A.D. Otto III was crowned as emperor. He used his military power to bring an end to the long-lasting feud between the Roman families who chose popes and the German monarchs who installed their own. He installed Sylvester II as pope.

With Otto III’s military support behind Sylvester II lost little time proclaiming himself Universal Pope. His power extended throughout Europe as far as Scandinavia. Sylvester II sent instructions to Olaf Trygvesson to ban the use of runes that had been used in pagan ceremonies. These were to be replaced with the Latin Alphabet (Reston, 259).

At the same time as Sylvester increased his power, Otto III seemed to lose interest in his empire. Instead of the pomp and ceremony he had preferred, he suddenly went to the other extreme in favor of “penitence, renunciation and Mysticism” (Reston, 258). He spent time in a hermit’s cell in 999 A.D. He traveled throughout Europe and visited his empire. He generously gave gifts to local overlords. He seemed to be torn between being a monk and an imperial warrior. Several times he marched against the city of Rome that had rebelled against him and barred his entrance into the city. In January 1002 Otto III died just before his twenty-second birthday (Reston, 245-271).

By the end of the first millennium Christianity had won the war for Europe over pagan religions. In the fifty years prior to the turn of the eleventh century Europe and the western world had been changed from a loose collection of tribes to what would become modern Europe (Reston 272-277).

This book was an interesting attempt to describe the conditions of western civilization at the end of the last millennium. Reston succeed in his attempt to describe this time as a ” story of 999 A.D. through a series of interlock portraits?” (Reston 278).

Reston has provided an interesting account of the interconnections between the people of that time. Prior to reading this book one would never have realized the impact of individuals through the western world. Olaf Trygvesson’s actions were felt throughout Europe and extended into what you become the New World. At times it felt like Trygvesson and other persons mentioned in the book had only to turn around to confront a leader who’s impact had started as a petty leader of a tribe of people only to become known throughout Europe when he (or she) began to convert people to Christianity. It is interesting how much of the development and changes were as a result from people working to spread Christianity. It is interesting how political the church was and what a lack of what would be considered good Christian behavior today the followers of Christianity  possessed.

It is interesting, too, how pulling a thread opens up so much history. The threads of the ancient world were not cut by the Dark Ages and replaced with fresh threads during the Renaissance as one might have though prior to reading this book. Instead the ancient threads continue through the Dark Ages throughout Europe, only to continue throughout European history during the second millennium.

Reston’s writing is interesting. It is not without fault however. He provides a very readable account of the time period and the people who lived then, but his saga is disturbing because of the lack of footnotes or endnotes detailing where his information was found. On the plus side Reston does provide a very detailed and extensive bibliography.

Reading this book has begun to fill the five plus century vacancy of one’s understanding of western civilization. It has also shown this writer than there was lots of interesting maneuvering and development in the Dark Ages.

In conclusion, it is amazing that those empty years from 486 to 1066 A.D. had so many people living there, doing so many things that so many today are unaware of.

Works Cited

Reston, James Jr. The Last Apocalypse: Europe at the Year 1000 A.D. New York: Anchor Books-Doubleday, 1998.

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