Shedding Light in the Darkness of Our Historical Imaginations

April 24, 2022   •   By Eleanor Janega

The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe

Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry

IT ISN’T ALWAYS immediately clear to nonspecialists that medieval history is political. A time period stretching from, roughly, the fifth century to the 15th seems sufficiently removed from our world that its study couldn’t be adversely affected by our own prejudices. And yet, as historians know, all history is political, and the ways we relate to the past are inextricably bound with the times in which its histories were written — or ignored.

It is this political lens that has allowed the idea of the Middle Ages as “the Dark Ages” to rule over our collective imagination. We are given to understand that the Middle Ages were a time of drudgery and filth, where people toiled endlessly in their minute villages, never traveled anywhere, and died young as a direct result of latent superstition or religious opposition to scientific progress. In short, it is everything that we, the enlightened of modernity, are not.

It is for this reason that David Perry and Matthew Gabriele’s new work, The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe, is so timely. From the outset, the authors make it clear that they are ready to challenge foregone conclusions with their well-chosen case studies, and indeed, over the course of some 17 chapters, they present a more accurate appraisal of the medieval world. By situating the beginning of the book in Ravenna, the capital of the Western Roman Empire, for example, Perry and Gabriele cleverly challenge common assumptions about the medieval period as a foil to a brighter and more beautiful classical era. The traditional historiography pins the beginning of the Middle Ages to a theoretical “fall” of Rome, in 476, but almost no one alive at the time would have been able to tell you that such a thing had happened. For them, life went on much as it had before, with a new set of rulers consciously emulating their Roman predecessors.

In this climate, Ravenna continued to thrive, and gorgeous works of piety and art such as Galla Placidia’s mausoleum testify to the beauty and luxury still to be found there. Meanwhile, in the Eastern Roman Empire, emperors continued to rule from Constantinople, as their gleaming capital became “the mental center of the Mediterranean world — its gravity so strong that for a time it brought almost all expressions of religious, cultural, and political power to itself.”

By asking readers to consider how we got ourselves into a position of claiming that there was one Rome that could have fallen, given cities like Ravenna and Constantinople full of literary, political, and artistic evidence to the contrary, Perry and Gabriele invite the reader to consider why we got into this position. Our own society, based on imperial ideas of conquest and colonialism, benefits from telling a story about how civilization and society collapsed when power ceased to stay in the hands of one small group of men ruling a slave empire from Ravenna. To state that beauty continued to exist, and that power changed slowly and took on other forms with no collapse into drudgery, is both necessary and judicious as we edge toward acknowledging and repairing imperial harms.

Similarly heartening is The Bright Ages’s commitment to broadening the scope of the medieval and presenting Europe as a part of the broader world, as connected to Baghdad as it was to the Asian steppes. Discussing the (admittedly comical) appearance of sandal-clad Franciscan friars at the glorious court of Möngke Khan in the 13th century, Perry and Gabriele present an interconnected and complex world. At Khan’s court, a Hungarian servant could explain the new European interest in apostolic poverty among Western European Christians, and that explanation could be readily understood because Khan’s chief secretary was himself a Nestorian Christian. This was no sudden and unnerving clash of civilizations, but a meeting between one of the most powerful men on the steppe and the emissaries of one of his royal equivalents, King Louis IX of France. The Franciscans were given shoes and a place to ride out the winter in Karakorum before crossing Asia and returning to the French court, having failed in their mission to convert the Khanate to Christianity, having gained instead some great stories.

That this narrative might come as a surprise to non-historians is, again, a reflection of a political ideology. We present medieval Europe as isolated from its neighbors in Africa and Asia to explain modern period Europeans’ interest in violently subjugating these same regions and the Americas to boot. After all, we are told, they had no access to spices or silk and would have done anything to get their hands on them in a world where crossing the steppe meant risking death at the hands of the Mongols. Setting aside the fact that spices actually arrived by the boatload into Europe from the maritime Silk Road via the Middle East, if we acknowledge that the Mongols were reasonable, and that Europeans were already coming and going to Asia with ease for centuries, then how do we explain our own modern rapacity? How do we grapple with what we are still doing to secure oil, bananas, or cheap clothes? 

The Bright Ages is a necessary book. It does the hard work of introducing audiences to a world that we too often overlook for expressly political reasons. It is also a joyful work. The medieval period, Perry and Gabriele argue, has good news for us. The world can be beautiful without centralized and brutal imperial power. Trade, commerce, even travel for interest, can exist without requiring violent organized military intervention.

The Bright Ages does not argue that the Middle Ages were a placid ideal with no violence or friction. Rather, it asks us to look again at a world where complexity and beauty exist alongside the same moral ambiguities and power struggles that we are still interpreting. Seeing a clearer, brighter picture of the medieval period means we can see ourselves reflected there and make something newer and brighter still. This is a work of history, politics, beauty, and fun, and for these reasons it should find itself as a standard work for popular audiences.

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Eleanor Janega is a medieval historian teaching at the London School of Economics. Her latest book The Once and Future Sex is forthcoming with W.W. Norton.