Books

Why Our Fantasy of a Dark and Bloody Middle Ages Is So Hard to Shake

A new history makes the case for light.

A mosaic ceiling in blue, green, gold, and orange.
Mausoleum of Galla Placidia mosaics, a UNESCO World heritage site in Ravenna, Italy, from the 5th century A.D. Photo by Petar Milošević/Wikimedia Commons.  

To be a medieval historian is to devote yourself to the study of a period that is at once completely misunderstood, and used to justify some of the basest ideals of the worst people imaginable. This fact is a source of unending frustration among medievalists, who know that the Middle Ages, which run from roughly the supposed “fall” of the Western Roman Empire in 476 until petering out sometime in the sixteenth century, were intensely complex, interesting, and influential. Sadly, the complexity that historians celebrate is much less catchy to non-historians than the idea of the period as grim and bloody. An era where systems of rule changed constantly and societies varied vastly across the sweep of Europe, into the Middle East and out across the steppes of Asia, doesn’t fit neatly into a textbook or standard curricula, and is much less easily used as source material for epic fantasy novels and TV shows.

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There’s a reason for this misunderstanding. The medieval era we historians know—a time when Europe thrived, despite not yet being aggressively imperial or expansionist, and where the Catholic Church drove extensive scientific and philosophical invention—simply doesn’t fit with the narratives that American and European society wants. We need the Middle Ages to have been awful, to justify the reintroduction of empires built on slavery in the centuries afterwards. Religion has to have been the enemy of science, or we can’t explain the tension between the two in our own society. Medieval Europe must have been completely isolated from the rest of the world, or our fantasies of white ethnonationalism aren’t grounded in history. Myths about the medieval period as the “Dark Ages”—a thousand-year period devoid of growth, delight, art, and pleasure—persist largely to make us feel better about ourselves.

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Now historians David M. Perry and Matthew Gabriele have stepped up to counter this narrative with their latest book, The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe. The work is an ambitious one. It begins in Ravenna, visits Jerusalem, moves with the Vikings across Europe and into the Americas, examines the shifts of culture and religion on the Iberian Peninsula, arrives at the court of Mönge Kahn on the Asian steppe, observes the arrival of plague in Sienna, and ends back in Ravenna by way of Florence, following the exile of Dante and his subsequent burial. As the book changes locations, its chronology advances. Ravenna, then capital of the Roman Empire, is a fitting place to begin in the fifth century, and Florence, one of the most important Italian city-states during the early modern period, a useful endpoint—especially important when it can be so difficult to decide exactly where the Middle Ages ends. The result is a comprehensive, if whistle-stop, look at medieval Eurasia over a millennium.

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The strengths of the Bright Ages are several, but what is most pleasurable to see as a medievalist is the way its authors use sources. Each chapter is anchored by references to art and artworks from the time and place that it is describing. The shimmering blue of the lapis lazuli mosaic sky in a Ravenna chapel, the golden statue of the fearsome St Foy in Conques, and the gleaming walls of Baghdad are described with such precision and loving detail that readers are able to imagine themselves among the splendor of the medieval world.

An emphasis on beauty might seem trivial, but one of the most frequently repeated myths about the medieval period is that it is, quite literally, dark. Often, people imagine a landscape of earth tones and filth when they think about the Middle Ages. Nothing could be further from the truth, and in fact, the medieval world could even be described as gaudy in comparison to our own staid modern tastes. Medieval people absolutely loved to paint statues, decorate walls with vibrant frescoes, and wear the brightest clothing available. Every piece of Viking jewelry, every candle that Perry and Gabriele describe helps to anchor readers in a world that is much more complex and beautiful than they may have otherwise given it credit. It encourages them to think of the medieval period as a time where elephants were sent from Baghdad to Aachen as a gifts, great libraries were created, and art, beauty, and luxury had a central place in life.

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In terms of written sources, the authors have also been incredibly astute. They have leaned heavily into what professionals might dub the “classic” medieval texts. They consider, for example, Pope Urban’s legendary incitement to crusade in the eleventh century, or Procopius’s sixth-century Secret History, which called the Empress Theodora a harlot, and the Emperor Justinian her demonically possessed stooge. These text choices invite non-expert readers in, grounding them in works that they may already find familiar.

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Rather than introducing these sources as unassailable witnesses to a straight-forward past, Perry and Gabriele deftly pick them apart. Can the content of a speech (like Urban’s) that we have five different versions of, committed to parchment more than a decade after it was given, really be trusted as a legitimate historical source? If the Secret History reveals Procopius’s true feelings, why did he never release it, even after those it insulted were safely six feet underground? The Bright Ages is steeped in the sort of nuance that allows audiences to gently reconsider their preconceived ideas.

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None of this is to say, however, that what readers are presented with is an apologia for the Middle Ages, or an argument for it as a time of peace and plenty. One of the book’s most masterful chapters centers on the Iberian Peninsula and deconstructs narratives about “Reconquista”, the Christian retaking of the land from its Muslim rulers, versus “Convivencia”, the idea of a harmonious society where Christians, Muslims, and Jewish people lived placidly alongside each other.

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Perry and Gabriele rightly acknowledge that the glorious idea of Reconquista is best understood as part of a fascist propaganda campaign by twentieth-century Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. At the same time, they caution against the modern urge to look at the multi-religious society of the medieval Iberian Peninsula and to identify it as proof of easy multicultural success. Lasting peace never even existed between various Christian factions in these kingdoms, let alone between each of the varied cultural communities of Iberia. Acknowledging this truth allows us to accept that the medieval period was a multifaceted, and sometimes violent, place—just maybe not in the way that everyone assumes it was. The Bright Ages gets that we don’t have to accept a straight-forward dichotomy about the past, and explains how to become comfortable with that.

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While all of this is the sort of stuff that professional medievalists love to see, the thing I like most about Perry and Gabriele’s effort is that it is fun. The Bright Ages is written in such an engaging and light manner that it is easy to race through. I found myself at the end of chapters faster than I wanted to be, completely drawn in by the narrative. You can tell how much the authors love the subject matter, and that they had a great time choosing stories to share and evidence to consider. I repeatedly laughed out loud as I was rushing through, giggling along at the idea of Franciscan monks standing in sandals in the snow in front of a Khan and his glorious retinue, or a Viking woman slapping her bared breast with a sword, to emasculate the men alongside her that she thought weren’t fighting hard enough.

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The beauty and levity that Perry and Gabriele have captured in this book are what I think will help it to become a standard text for general audiences for years to come. Medieval historians aren’t interested in the period because it is dull. However, few of us have succeeded in conveying to audiences the fact that the complexity and subtlety of the Middle Ages allows for fun as well as drama. The Bright Ages is a rare thing—a nuanced historical work that almost anyone can enjoy reading. I can only hope that people will do so, and abandon lazy, incorrect tropes about the medieval period as a time of superstition and horror. This way is funner—I promise.

The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe

By Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry, published by HarperCollins.

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