Illuminating the Middle Ages

It is probably true that no period in European history had been so misconceived, misconstrued, misrepresented, as the Middle Ages. Alone the fact that a period of history that is often considered to have lasted a thousand years from 500 to 1500 CE is perceived as somehow being a single, monolithic entity is at best a joke and at worst total nonsense; one that we owe to the Renaissance Humanists, who regarding themselves as the inheritors of the glory that was the Rome of Cicero and Quintilianus labelled the time span in between antique Rome and their own age, the middle period. A period of ignorance, illiteracy, and barbaric Latin in their opinion. Although we should know better, we continue to live with the Humanists coup de grace that effectively consigned a thousand years of history to the rubbish bin, not worthy of serious consideration. 

Although I assigned dates to it above, alone trying to fix a beginning and/or an end to this period is the subject of hot debates amongst historians. Maybe, the simple answer is that it didn’t really begin or end and there is much more continuity to European history than the labels Antiquity, Middle Ages, Renaissance or Early Modern Period would at first glance imply. 

Unfortunately, whatever historians might think, do, or say, there is a very popular perception of the Middle Ages that gets regurgitated at regular intervals in novels, films, and television entertainment programmes. This is a dark, duster and barbaric period ruled over by the totalitarian, science rejecting, witch and heretic burning Church. A period of brutal wars carried out by tyrannical rulers. A period in which women are either damsels in distress, aged, wizened spinsters, whores, or witches. Peasants are filthy, downtrodden, superstitious, subhumans, who live in hovels and are subjected to the brutal whims of the tyrannical rulers and the Church. The term most often associated with this parody of the Middle Ages, and it really is pure parody, is the Dark Ages, which despite the best efforts of historians in recent decades to replace it with the Early Middle Ages is still widely used.

Two recent books on the Middle Ages have in their titles turned the tables rechristening the Middle Ages with synonyms for illumination. The first was Seb Falk’s excellent presentation of the real history of medieval science, The Light Ages, which I reviewed here. The second is Matthew Gabriele & David M Perry’s The Bright AgesA New History of Medieval Europe[1], which I shall briefly review here.  

Whereas Falk concentrates on the history of medieval science Gabriele & Perry’s book deals with the general political and religious history of Europe from the early fifth century to the early fourteenth century. What Gabriele & Perry can’t deliver in the roughly two hundred and fifty pages of their volume is a detailed historical narrative of the entire European history of the nine hundred years that their book covers; they would probably require two and a half thousand pages for that. What they deliver is an episodic narrative of the period, which sketches very informatively the main developments, illustrating the ups and downs, twists and turns of European history that took place over this almost millennium. 

Whilst the narrative style of the two authors is light and breezy making their book a comparatively easy read and they also succeed in effectively demolishing a lot of myths about the medieval period, the book left me wanting more than they delivered. However, before I explain my reservations a couple of positive aspects of the book.

The first in in terms of the contents. Whereas, it is common in discussions of the Middle Ages to talk, as I did above, of the Church, meaning the Catholic Church, as if there was only one version of Christianity throughout the period, the authors show how different dominant political groups adhered to different interpretations of Christianity, during the Early Medieval Period and that a monolithic Catholic Church was a quite late development.

The second very positive aspect is the clear demonstration that there was more continuity between the decline of the Roman Empire and its political structures and the Early Modern Period than the ‘fall’ of popular perception.

For me the third big plus point is in the bibliography or rather the extensive further reading recommendations. The book is a trade book, not an academic one, aimed at a fairly wide audience and as such has not foot or end notes and no conventional bibliography. However, at the end there is a twenty-page Further Reading section, which chapter for chapter give annotated recommendation for deeper exploration of the topic dealt with in that chapter.

Now my personal reservations. Firstly, maybe it’s my problem, but a lot of the time I found that the authors were assuming too much previous knowledge for the level of text that they are trying to present in their book. For my taste it is neither an introductory text nor an advanced one, but an uneasy hybrid stuck somewhere in between. 

My second reservation is, in my opinion, more important. The book is very heavily tilted towards the two themes of religion and politics in the medieval period, which of course are very much intertwined for most of the period under discussion and this makes the book very narrow in its presentation of the period. There is next to nothing on agriculture, technology, trade, science, or finance, all areas which underwent important developments during the Middle Ages and helped to shape the future. Seb Falk has naturally covered the science and John Farrell the technology in his The Clock and the CamshaftAnd Other Medieval Inventions We Still Can’t Live Without, which I reviewed here. However, I feel that they should at least have been addressed in Garbriele & Perry’s volume.

As it stands The Bright Ages is good on the areas it covers and is definitely worth a read but in my opinion it could and should have been so much more.

[1] Matthew Gabriele & David M Perry, The Bright AgesA New History of Medieval Europe, Harper, New York, 2021.


Filed under Book Reviews, Uncategorized

11 responses to “Illuminating the Middle Ages

  1. Giulio

    In the book’s cover the surname is written Gabriele, but in the article Garbriele, which of those is wrong?

  2. Michael Way

    Wondering what you think about the Durant series of books that cover “The Middle Ages” amongst many other eras? I’ve had the volumes on my shelf for years and occasionally pick them up as a sort of starting point, but do they also fall into this trap of the ‘dark ages’ etc?

  3. A careful and kind review. Obviously we don’t live in the 13th century any more. How that happened can only partially be explained by pointing out that we know more true things now than we did then. Hurrah for us. Larger questions about medievalism, western triumphalism, millennial thinking, and other thorny issues continue to vex historians who wonder about the human condition. Periodization and notions of progress are of course useful teaching tools, and everybody loves a coherent master narrative. But history is messy and ‘progress’ is a group effort by many kinds of folks whose names are lost to us. You’re right. More can be done.

  4. I had already bought this book, but not yet got round to reading it, so very much appreciate your review.

    • Having read about a quarter of it, I think your review is spot on. The principal fault to my mind is the subtitle ‘A new History of Medieval Europe’ which it is manifestly not. If it had been ‘Religion and Politics in Medieval Europe’ that would have been a much better indicator of the book’s contents, but even so the book doesn’t really explain why Arianism, or as we should call it nowadays, Unitarianism, became so common north of the Alps. It is very disappointing that they do not even include Geza Vermes’ “Christian Beginnings” among their further reading recommendations, which makes me wonder how up-to-date their knowledge of patristics is. Since the conflict between Unitarian and Trinitarian christians is central to the history of the Christian religion, and indeed was a proximate factor in the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches in 1054, this is a serious omission; meanwhile the whole of Celtic Christianity is summed up in a section about the Ruthwell Cross, with no indication of the history that lay behind it. The further reading does not help much here and seems to be more a grab-bag of the authors’ personal interests rather than a coherent background to the chapter.

      I would not go as far as recommending buying this book. If your library has a copy then by all means read it, but it does not deserve a place on your bookshelf.

  5. Jim Harrison

    A lot of what we think of as characteristically Medieval is really Renaissance or early modern—the witch craze, the Spanish Inquisition, elaborate codes of chivalry, irrationalism in philosophy, etc. Anyhow, a historical periodization that looked at things with a broad focus might define the Middle Ages as everything that happened between the end of the Neolithic and about 1870 when the way people live in much of the world began a hundred-year long revolution with the advent of Indoor plumbing, safe drinking water, refrigeration, air conditioning, vaccines, airplanes, plastics, nitrogen fertilizer, internal combustion engines, radio and television, telephones, electric power, computers, satellites, and mass education—innovations that liberated mankind from the Malthusian trap that had made previous eruptions of prosperity local and temporary.

  6. There has been some push back on twitter, that some of what they say is basically cribbed straight from less well known researchers without any acknowledgement, and that they do just leave out complexity and make it all too simple. There will no doubt be more in depth reviews of it from more critical folks in a wee while.
    One of the more random ones I found:
    “Help my spouse is re-reading The Bright Ages out of spite and they found the authors claimed Caesar conquered Britain and that al-Mansur was the /first/ Abbasid caliph 💀💀💀”

  7. For those seeking to understand the recent controversy around this book, follow #BrightAgesSoWhite on Twitter. @ISASaxonists, who is Black, was commissioned by the Los Angeles Review of Books to review it. The Review then printed a review by another (white) reviewer.

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