The middle ages are a sort of paradox, write the authors of this engaging history. “When people want to kick a current problem back into the past – whether Islamic terrorism, bungled responses to Covid-19, or even the process for getting a driver’s licence (it involves a lot of bureaucracy) – they call it ‘medieval’.’’ So too do white supremacists, who look to the middle ages to seize on “golden and glorious artefacts, big castles and cathedrals when they want to claim an origin story for whiteness”.
Part of the reason for this is because the thousand-year period that followed the sack of Rome in the 410s has often been thought of as the dark ages, a “centuries-old understanding of the medieval world” that still pervades popular culture and evokes an “isolated, savage, primitive medieval Europe”. Matthew Gabriele and David Perry set out to provide a corrective, setting out “a new story” of “the Bright Ages” that stresses continuities over change, and emphasises connections and mutual influences over exceptionalism.
The authors essentially address the subject chronologically, picking out individuals to illustrate a wide range of talents and achievements – such as Galla Placidia, the patron of the gorgeous chapel that is one of the glories of Ravenna; or Bede, the industrious monk in Northumbria whose accounts of early England are so important; or Ibn Rushd and Moses ben Maimon (better known as Maimonides), outstanding scholars of the 12th century, whose works were hugely influential.
Misconceptions and bugbears are addressed with gusto, such as the 16th-century scholar Giorgio Vasari, blamed for coining the term gothic as “a negative description of medieval art”, or Charles Homer Haskins, whose concept of the “12th-century renaissance”, which is almost 100 years old, is misleading and casts women as well as “non-Christians and non-white people in the shadows”. Edward Gibbon is upbraided for longing for “a purer Italy” while gazing at Rome’s ruins “as a dilettante traveller” and thus coming up with the classic “ages-old idea” of the collapse of the Roman empire. In fact, the authors argue provocatively, “Rome did not fall.”
Gabriele and Perry, both medieval historians of considerable distinction, are writing here for non-specialist readers, drawing on references to the modern world that range from Hollywood movies to blockbuster video games, from the Ku Klux Klan’s terminology to the flags waved during the storming of the US Capitol in January 2021. They write with spirit and a breezy style that makes for an enjoyable read. We learn that the Vikings were “snazzy dressers”, that the fall of Jerusalem to the First Crusade in 1099 was met by many Muslims with “a collective shrug”, and that many who went from “west to east and east to west” at the time of the rise of the great Mongol empire were seeking to “forge a military partnership based in realpolitik”.
This makes the book and its themes easily accessible – the merits of which the authors themselves seem to sometimes be uncertain, with the reader being repeatedly reminded that history is not straightforward, but complicated and complex. Such is the price of reaching outside the halls of academia, and something the authors are to be commended for.
Given Gabriele and Perry’s determination to be inclusive and retell the story of Europe’s “Bright Ages”, it is a shame, then, that there is no coverage of half of the continent’s histories, peoples and cultures. Poland and Hungary, political and cultural powerhouses in Europe in the middle ages, are absent, while Kievan Rus’, which stretched from the Baltic to the Black Seas, appears briefly and only in passing. The two Bulgarian empires and the Great Moravian empire are not even mentioned. Most strikingly of all, the eastern Roman – or Byzantine – empire, its scholarship, art, literature, politics, trade and religion is effectively (if implicitly) dismissed as an irrelevance to Europe, rather than an essential and deeply rooted part of its history, if not its very core, for some or even all this period.
These omissions attest to a wider problem of how history has been used to exclude those who do not fit into the triumphant narrative of the rise of the west – ironically the very thing The Bright Ages sets out to challenge. What the authors have done well, they’ve done very well and with passion and verve, challenging the reader to tackle assumptions, bias and prejudices about the past to create a more joined-up, inclusive picture of the thousand years that followed the sack of Rome.
But I, for one, would sing from the rooftops if Gabriele and Perry penned another volume that looked at – or simply included – the poor cousins in the half of Europe whose rich and important pasts remain firmly enveloped in darkness, rather than bathed in light.
Peter Frankopan is the author of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (Bloomsbury)