The Dark Ages were actually pretty bright
Middle Ages get a contemporary look
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Spaceship Earth at Disney’s Epcot theme park takes riders on an educational trip through the best of human history. After spending a few minutes on the achievements of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, the ride skips over the next thousand years and begins extolling the virtues of the Renaissance and modernity. Is there nothing in these Middle Ages worth studying? Did humanity take a step backward?
This popular perception of the Middle Ages is all too common, leading people to dismiss these thousand years as a superstitious and brutal speed bump in the path of human progress. It’s this image of “the Dark Ages” that Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry challenge in their recent book, The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe.
In this chronological narrative, the authors begin with the fall of Rome in the fifth century and end in the 14th century with the Italian Renaissance. They manage to pack a lot of information into this slim volume, recounting the rise of Byzantines, Arabs, Franks, Vikings, and Mongols. Readers will find moments of cooperation among Christians, Muslims, and Jews but also learn about violent conflicts among the three Abrahamic religions.
Despite the breadth, Gabriele and Perry tell a story that’s accessible and enjoyable for nonspecialists. Their prose is chatty, sometimes to a fault, and they don’t assume their readers have much prior knowledge. Thankfully, the book doesn’t present the flow of history as the inevitable movement of impersonal social forces. Rather the narrative engages our attention by focusing on the historical actions of real people.
The Bright Ages takes a somewhat meandering journey through the Middle Ages, and many of the people we meet along the way aren’t whom you might expect. We meet a few kings and popes, but Gabriele and Perry shine their light on people who they say have been typically ignored in history books. They use the story of Galla Placidia, an empress of the late Roman Empire, as a frame, beginning and ending the book in her mausoleum in Ravenna. Almost every chapter features a different woman whose story might typify her context. The book also attempts to highlight contributions of non-elites and non-Europeans. The characters who populate this history might not be the “greatest hits” of medieval Europe, but their stories illuminate what life could be like during these years.
One of the strengths of the book is the authors’ sensitivity to religion. Perry is Jewish, and Gabriele is Catholic. And they consider spiritual motivations as legitimate explanations for people’s decisions. Too often past historians treated medieval religious experience as either “a smokescreen for the ‘real’ economic or political actions” or “as evidence that medieval people were unthinking religious fanatics.” Readers won’t necessarily affirm medieval theological reasoning, but they’ll gain an understanding of the religious concerns that drove these people.
When it comes to religious violence, however, Gabriele and Perry flinch from the horror. Their chapter on the Crusades disappoints because they claim we can’t really know why the first Crusaders did what they did. They dismiss the historical evidence as untrustworthy, but if they applied the same standard to the rest of the book’s evidence, they would need to dismiss everything.
Their “further reading” section ignores the work of Jonathan Riley-Smith, the leading Crusade historian of the last 50 years. It’s as if the Crusades are too hot to handle in light of today’s political discourse.
The Bright Ages is very much a product of our age, which doesn’t mean it’s a bad read—you just need to know what you’re getting. Gabriele and Perry complain about historians who looked to the Middle Ages for the foundations of European nationalism or for justifications of European colonialism. But Gabriele and Perry are guilty of looking to history for their own justifications.
Their narrative highlights themes of female empowerment, multiculturalism, and globalization. These themes are present in the lives of some medieval Europeans, so we see the bounds of what was possible, but these experiences certainly weren’t universal to the age. When the authors put their spotlight on these ideas, they show us as much about our world as they do the world of the Middle Ages.
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