Review: Dominion by Tom Holland
Right, everyone, buckle your butts, because I have some THOUGHTS about this book.
Very briefly, this is a broad - and I mean massively, unwieldingly, and ultimately far too wide in scope broad - historical analysis of the impact of Christianity on the world. Unfortunately, that categorization is not actually what this book ends up covering: it is, if anything, a very specific analysis of how the Reformation impacted European history from the seventeenth century onward.
For better or for worse, I hold my nonfiction to a much higher standard than I do my fiction, especially nonfiction written by someone who, in his author biography, is described as an 'award-winning historian'. Now, for me, a historian is someone who, at minimum, has a Bachelor's degree in History with a specification in their favourite bit of history (my Bachelor's is History and my specialised focus was Franco-English relations in the early Medieval period and my Master's is International Politics, with a thesis written on the history of German and British nationality law in the post-World War II years. I've written more research papers than I can count on the relationship between the Catholic Church and secular authorities in the Early Renaissance period). However, I have Googled Tom Holland and I am sorry to report that he has no degree in History. None. I'm not saying you need a formalized education in history to love it and find it fascinating, but as someone who has spent a significant portion of my years in education studying some pretty obscure and niche bits of Catholic history, I don't quite know where this guy gets off calling himself a historian when I don't, and I have more of a formal claim to that than he does.
Anyway, spoiler alert, I had several problems with this book. Let's get on with it.
My first major issue is that Tom Holland was writing what I like to call "historical analysis for dummies". It's oftentimes a simplification of a complex issue, packaged as a thriller so that laypeople who don't have the thorough grounding in all the details necessary can enjoy the book and get something out of it. My main problem with this is that it is, especially in the case of something as fundamental as the history of the Christian faith, a gross oversimplification of what is an insanely complex, multi-layered, nuanced, and ultimately still hella relevant conversation and debate that anybody who claims to be a historian should have known better than to try and sell as a pulpy story. He cites Church writings and myths that have long since been debunked; presents the stories of miracles without their relevant geopolitical or social context; drops in quotes without proper citations; and all sorts of other writing faux pas that any rigorously researched or vetted historical book should have been left without. He's trying to turn what is a complicated yet absolutely fascinating history in its own right to a gripping fiction tale; and maybe this just infuriated me because I already have a thorough grounding in what he is trying to say - but it did infuriate me. The sensationalisation of his writing serves to the detriment of any coherent argument he's trying to make.
Now, this next point is I think my main gripe. The argument is just too wide in scope, and because he's trying to do so much, he ends up leaving out such huge gaping holes that his argument is undone by what he hasn't taken the time to properly address. Every chapter ends on an argument that could have been more fully explored and yet was left completely in abeyance. A more ruthless editor, or even just a narrower focus, would have been beneficial to the work. But since he didn't narrow his focus - how the fuck did he make the decisions of what to leave out??? What self-respecting 'exploration of all of Christianity!' could choose to focus 4 chapters on the Reformation, yet devote a grand total of (and this is a grand total - I went back and double-checked to be sure) only: 2 paragraphs to the Crusades; 1 sentence to the Inquisition; and 2 sentences to the schism between the Orthodox Christian churches and Catholicism? I am not claiming that the Reformation wasn't hugely important to the impact of Christianity on the world. It absolutely was. But no less important was the role the Crusades formed in creating Christendom as a geopolitical unit and the emphasis of the Papacy as both a spiritual and a temporal power, which itself laid the foundation for the absolute schism that the Reformation caused. No less important was the role of the Inquisition in forming a political bureaucracy with the weight of spiritually sanctioned violence behind it, and the network and precedent that that set for the ultimate absorption of a secular state of the monopoly of violence that led to such slaughter during the eighteenth and nineteenth and twentieth-century wars that ravaged Europe. No less important in the division between West and East was the schism between the churches that date back to Byzantium. The fact that Holland barely acknowledges these, let alone devoting the space to them that their importance in the history he's trying to tell deserve, discredits his book almost completely in my eyes.
This history, in the hands of Tom Holland, is almost exclusively male. He does not dedicate any space in his book to what, I believe, is one of Catholicism's lasting evils: its role in the construction of the Virgin/whore complex that has been so detrimental over two millennia to the relationship of women with power. There are plenty of women, other than the Virgin and Mary Magdalene, who shaped the role of the Church in politics and history. What about Helen of Byzantium? What about Blanche of Castille? What about Eleanor of Aquitaine? What about, for fuck's sake, Anne Boleyn and the credible historical evidence that she was one of the first Evangelicals? What about the witch hunts of the early Medieval period? The fact that Holland does not acknowledge the role of women in shaping Christian history is both a testament to and a product of the Church's lasting legacy of misogyny - something that he also does not acknowledge, even in passing.
He also completely skates over the terrible things that the Church is guilty of doing and covering up - no mention of the witch hunts (as I mention above); no mention of the Crusades or the Inquisition; no mention of the pogroms; no mention of, perhaps most disappointingly of all, the Church's complicity in the war crimes of the Nazis during World War II; and, most shockingly, no mention of the Church's covering-up of the horrific sex abuses that some Catholic priests were committing against young boys in their dioceses. Nobody can make the claim that they are delivering a comprehensive history of the Church without also taking a good, long, hard look at the horrific crimes the Church has committed. I say that as a devout, practicing Catholic. This was perhaps the thing I found most disappointing in the whole book - he whitewashed the history of Christianity in a way that was ultimately hugely unhelpful to his argument. No whitewashed history is a comprehensive, unbiased, or helpful history. Any good points he made about the role of the Church, any emphasis on the Church's successes, can be dismissed as biased because of his unwillingness to look at some of the abuses and crimes the faith is guilty of in the face.
And, lastly: he cites Wikipedia. Twice. That in and of itself is disqualifying in being taken seriously as a historian.
I'm not going to recommend this book, but there were a few things I appreciated (hence the 3.3 star rating). His attempt to write the book in the first place is laudable, as are his efforts to go as far back into Christian history as he did. His arguments about why the worship of Christ has come to be so powerful and so lasting were not necessarily original, but they were compelling. His underlying thesis, that Christian thought and philosophy has permeated far more of our society and politics than we give it credit for, was a solid one and I think has been borne out by research done by other (credible) historians and gives other (credible) historians a solid framework for retackling the question. And his closing argument that faith can be redeemed, and still has an important role to play in the 21st century, struck a chord with me and reinforced my commitment to my faith and to counteract the horrible things Christians have in the past been guilty of doing.
If anybody wants to read a more in-depth analysis of the role of the Inquisition and the Crusades in the history of Christianity, I attach one of my many master's research papers on the subject.
If anybody wants to engage in a spirited debate on this subject, or has some recommendations for books written by actual historians on the history of Christianity, please holla at me - I'm always interested in learning more about this.