THE BRIGHT AGES by Gabriele & Perry, or What It Means to Be New.

It’s rare that there’s a buzz surrounding a book on medieval history written by two academic historians. It’s also rare that I get swept up in a book’s pre-publication hype. But The Bright Ages by Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry is the exception to both of those rules.

Matthew Gabriele is a professor of medieval history at Virginia Tech and David M. Perry is an academic adviser at University of Minnesota with a PhD in history and several freelance publications under his belt. Active on social media, Gabriele and Perry each have a substantial number of followers who are happy to participate in a major book launch, hence the buzz and the hype.

The Bright Ages is Gabriele and Perry’s contribution to the ongoing discussion about what the Middle Ages were really like. The Middle Ages was a time of violence, persecution, misogyny, and bigotry that we like to point at as a deterrent to make ourselves feel better about the violent, persecution-ridden, misogynistic, and bigoted times we live in. Or, we use the Middle Ages as inspiration for how to create an intolerant society in the present. But, as Gabriele and Perry demonstrate in their book, the Middle Ages are so much more than that.

The purpose of The Bright Ages is to wrest the Middle Ages out of the hands of political pundits and other unsavory characters and show that the Middle Ages were a time of sophistication, light, colors, complexity, and diversity, a purpose I agree with wholeheartedly.

Still, once I finished the book, it left me with a strange aftertaste. On the one hand, The Bright Ages is one of the best books I have ever read. On the other hand, I am flabbergasted by the liberties taken by the authors in order to make their point.

The Bright Ages is one of the best books I have ever read because of its beautiful prose, its clever storytelling, and for turning your expectations on their head at every twist and turn. The book opens beautifully with a description of Galla Placidia’s mausoleum, built c. 430 CE in Ravenna, Italy, and then seamlessly transitions into a discussion on the arbitrary nature of historical periodization. The life of Maimonides cleverly opens with Rambam’s brother David, a Jewish merchant from Spain living in exile in Egypt who sets sail for India to trade but never makes it there because his ship founders. By starting the story with David, Gabriele and Perry quickly establish the global inter-connectivity of the medieval world, where for the duration of the Middle Ages the center of the world economy was the Indian Ocean, not the Mediterranean or the Atlantic Ocean, which we tend to assume.

The term The Bright Ages serves three purposes in the book. First, it’s the book’s attention grabbing title, placed at the center of a gorgeous dust jacket wrapped around a beautifully bound book complete with a blind stamp on the front cover. Second, it’s the rhetorical device around which the entire argument revolves as the antonym of the Dark Ages. Third, the authors introduce it as a time period of its own.

According to Gabriele and Perry, the Bright Ages can be said to have lasted from the year 430, when Galla Placidia’s mausoleum is estimated to have been built, to 1321 when Dante Alighieri, of The Divine Comedy fame, died. During this time period, the authors argue, the Middle Ages were particularly bright, complex, diverse, and sophisticated. There are a couple of problems with this. First, the beginning and end of the Bright Ages are based on the Middle Ages in Italy, and apply only to the developments there. This in contrast to the book’s full title (The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe) which claims to be a new history for all of medieval Europe. Second, the time period from the fifth century to the fourteenth century is also known as the Early Middle Ages and the High Middle Ages, respectively, two subperiods of the Middle Ages that in traditional history writing are considered as, you guessed it, brighter, more complex, and more sophisticated than what came after, namely the late Middle Ages, in this book represented by the Black Death.

The problems with the Bright Ages as a time period and how it connects to the book’s full title is further underlined by the geographical scope of the book. The Bright Ages claims to speak for all of medieval Europe, when, in fact, it is mainly focused on the Roman Empire in the west and its descendants. For example, on the only map in the book, Kiev is the only included “key location” east of the river Rhine and north of the rive Danube (in Ancient history known as limes, that is the border region of the Roman Empire in the northeast). On this map, the area between Aachen in the west (where Charlemagne was based) and Kiev in the east is a place where nothing happened.

Yes, the book does mention what is there, namely the Holy Roman Empire, Poland, and Hungary, but they do not give the Holy Roman Empire its own chapter, even though the Holy Roman Empire played a crucial part in the development of European society of the Middle Ages and served as a nexus in the connections between east and west. Instead, this part of medieval Europe is included in the book so that points can be made about other things, e.g., the controversial person of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the city states of northern Italy, and the Mongols. What is more, Bohemia is conspicuously absent from the account of the Mongolian presence on the European peninsula even though Bohemia was one of the very few who defeated the Mongols in battle.

Which brings us to the Vikings.

Any history of medieval Europe needs to include the Vikings, and The Bright Ages dedicates an entire chapter to them. To the authors credit, in addition to the more famous raids on England and France, the focus is here broadened to include the Scandinavians who traveled through Central Asia (this is why Kiev is included on the map, while, interestingly, the home region of the Rus who traveled there is not; the map cuts off north of Denmark).

There are several problems with the chapter on the Vikings. First, the authors date the Viking Age to 793–1066, a period that only carries significance in British history and is not related to the developments in medieval Scandinavia. Second, the authors oscillate between mentioning medieval Scandinavia as an afterthought and using the terms “Viking Age” and “medieval Scandinavia” as if they are interchangeable. They are not. (In Scandinavia, the Viking Age is a subperiod of the Iron Age, i.e., neither part of history nor the Middle Ages.) When the authors claim that “the Vikings seem to be a quintessential medieval phenomenon,” they are bending history to fit their narrative, something that becomes even more apparent when they also state that the Icelanders of the Icelandic Free State “loved democracy.” The Icelandic Free State was many things, but democracy it was not.

Which brings us to the Italian city states.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the city states of northern Italy, some of Ancient origin some of medieval, were economic, cultural, and political powerhouses. You can’t discuss the Middle Ages without also discussing the veritable explosion in urban life, and you can’t discuss medieval urban life without talking about the city states of northern Italy. Just as with the Vikings, the book dedicates an entire chapter to them. And just like the Vikings, the city states (Florence in particular) are credited with creating a society based on democracy. The authors do admit that this democracy was more similar to the democracy of Ancient Athens and Rome, that is based on an “elected oligarchy” rather than one-person-one-vote. But, medieval merchant and artisan guilds were not democratic organizations and they did not run their cities based on democratic principles. These were organizations with closely guarded memberships. Yes, their members were of what we today would call the middle class, and the middle class, according to how we explain the development of modern society, is the carrier of representative democracy. That does not mean you can apply this causality to the Middle Ages.

As The Bright Ages wraps up, it becomes clear that the claim to be a “new” history of medieval Europe has little bearing. Here, the authors place Dante in Galla Placidia’s mausoleum, which works as a narrative device but is ultimately fiction. To get there, the authors weave a tight tapestry where time is linear with a determined direction while exulting the importance of Dante in relation to the stars and the universe in the mausoleum’s ceiling. All of this put together creates an evocative blend of history as fiction within a Christian view of time and the male genius of the West at the center of the universe. It can’t get anymore old fashioned than that.

But in the end, this entire discussion on the merits and demerits of The Bright Ages is, as the saying goes, academic. The intended audience for this book is not Gabriele and Perry’s fellow historians such as myself. They wrote this book for the general public to combat the appropriation of the Middle Ages by those who wish to use it for their own nefarious purposes. For that, I applaud them, and I hope that as many people as possible get to read The Bright Ages.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.


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Sarah Maza, THINKING ABOUT HISTORY, or History as Slime Toy.

Consider the slime toy. It is obviously an entity, a thing, right in front of you there it is. But as soon as you try and grab it, it slips out of your hand. Try and describe it–or worse, explain it–and you quickly run out of words. Or perhaps you find yourself forced to use too many words, and in the end you stop talking out of exasperation with yourself and the thing you are trying to define.

History is like a slime toy. They are both functioning contradictions. A slime toy is solid and liquid. It is slippery and dry. It is pleasant and unpleasant. Meanwhile, history is the past and the study of that past. It is a story and the creation of that story. It is a science and a liberal art. It is an artifact and a text. It is concrete and abstract. It is physical and ephemeral. It is popular and esoteric. It is the pursuit of the amateur and the expert.

Because of its amorphous nature, everyone has an opinion on history, and everyone thinks they can teach and write history. However, if we take a closer look at what history is–if we try and investigate that slime toy before it slips out of our hand–we will soon discover that history is a complicated thing with a long and complicated history of its own.

In her excellent book Thinking about History (The Chicago University Press, 2017), Sarah Maza, professor of history at Northwestern University, addresses the issues of the amorphousness of history and how that came to be. Divided into six chapters, Thinking about History discusses the who, what, where, and how of history production, as well as the-chicken-and-the-egg debate of historical causes and meanings, and the rise and fall of historical objectivity. The book is a fresh take on the history of history (historiography) that successfully breaks down the inherent Eurocentrism of the field. In doing so, it demonstrates how the parameters set up for what history is and should be are inherently northern European, Protestant, patriarchal, and imperialist, which still to this day actively disqualifies the histories of societies considered outside of the so-called “West” and groups considered not part of the mainstream.

Historiography might seem like a niche subject, but it is at the core of the polarization that we see in society today. At the heart of the so-called culture wars is a fight over history: who gets to write history; who should be included in that history; and what should that history be about.

As Maza demonstrates in her book, historians themselves have a lot to answer for in this mess. It is because of the biases, prejudices, and performative objectivity of historians in the past that we have ended up where we are. But, at the same time, it is also made clear that the key to solving the problem of polarization lies with the culprits.

In her conclusion, Maza states that for “the past to serve its best purpose we must not freeze it in place, we must argue about it” because history “becomes useless or boring at best, and dangerous at worst, when it jells into consensual orthodoxy of any sort.” Even though history studies the past, it does so in response to the needs of the present-day, and as such, history is one of the most important subjects we can study.

For history to be able to address the issues of today, we historians need to learn about our own sordid history. A very good place to start is with Sarah Maza’s Thinking about History.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.


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Judith Krantz’s MISTRAL’S DAUGHTER Revisited, Or If Judith Krantz Were a Man She’d Be Declared a Genius

After being prevented from traveling because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was finally able to visit my family for the holidays. Rummaging through old closets, drawers, and bookshelves, in the attic, among a set of books that used to be in my old room, I stumbled upon Mistral’s Daughter by Judith Krantz.

My copy of Judith Krantz’s Mistral’s Daughter (Swedish translation). Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

I didn’t expect Mistral’s Daughter to be my holiday read, but I adored that book in my early teens, and so I decided to revisit its pages. Rereading this book all these years later, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, and I was struck by how different this book would have been received had it been written by a man.

Mistral’s Daughter is the story of three generations of women–Maggie Lunel, her daughter Theodora (or “Teddy” for short), and her granddaughter Fauve–and their relationship to the genius artist and painter Julien Mistral. The story starts in the artists quarters of Montmartre in Paris in the 1920s and then branches out to New York City and Provence in the south of France where it ends sometime in the 1970s. It is a story of love, women’s empowerment, male narcissism, and art. The main characters are all women. Except for Julien Mistral, the men are side characters.

First published in 1982, Mistral’s Daughter was Judith Krantz’s third novel after Scruples and Princess Daisy. In 1984, it became a star-studded miniseries, starring Stephanie Powers as Maggie and Stacy Keach as Mistral.

Krantz began writing novels at the age of 50, after a long career in the magazine publishing business. She would go on to write ten novels and one autobiography and sell 85 million copies of her books, which were translated into 50 languages and spawned three TV mini series, despite the fact that the literary establishment immediately and for the duration of her publication career labled her work as schlocky.

When Krantz passed away in 2019, she was remembered as an author of women’s fiction who reveled in the glitz, glamour, and superficiality of high fashion and high-end magazine publishing, and who peppered her novels with explicit and gratuitous sex scenes. In their obituary of Krantz, The New York Times wrote that Krantz’s success came from “a formula that she honed to glittering perfection: fevered horizontal activities combined with fevered vertical ones — the former taking place in sumptuously appointed bedrooms and five-star hotels, the latter anywhere with a cash register and astronomical price tags,” while The Guardian stated that the “shopping in the novels of Judith Krantz had an intensity the sex could never match.” These are assessments that can be traced back to the original reviews of Krantz’s books. In her review of Mistral’s Daughter from 1983, New York Times’ art critic Grace Glueck states that the prose of Judith Krantz is so over-laden that she feels as if she is digesting 1,000 calories every time she turns the page, and that the book is filled with earth-shattering sex scenes with “multiple orgasms every dozen pages.”

What I find interesting is that when Krantz’s work is discussed, the focus is either on Scruples or Princess Daisy, never Mistral’s Daughter. Probably because, even though Mistral’s Daughter clearly is a Judith Krantz novel, it doesn’t fit the critic’s formula.

Yes, Mistral’s Daughter takes place in the world of high fashion and glossy magazine publishing. (But only partially.)

Yes, there is a headstrong female protagonist. (In fact, Mistral’s Daughter has three of them, but ultimately, this is Maggie’s story.)

Yes, there is sex.

Yes, there is shopping.

Yes, the story is told in “modifier-laden detail.”

But. The novel only contains four sex scenes. They are all at the beginning of the book (which should tell you how much of the novel Glueck actually read back in 1983), they are all important to the plot, and all of them take place at lower-class locations, such as Mistral’s Montmartre studio, Maggie’s scruffy Paris apartment, and a room above a countryside inn in Provence. It is notable that the relationship between Maggie and her life-partner Jason Darcy, which begins when both of them already belong to the elite of New York City, is never given its own sex scene. They hardly even kiss. Fauve, who clearly has an active sex life, is never given her own sex scene. The closest the book comes to giving her one is when she wakes up naked in a bed that is not hers.

Nobody goes shopping. Maggie agrees to be taken shopping by others, but only reluctantly because her clothes are worn out and because she is moving up in society. What eventually will be of consequence to the story are items that initially are mentioned only in passing. Teddy wears the clothes her stylist gives her without any input of her own. Fauve treats fashion as an after thought. Kate Browning, the woman Mistral eventually marries, doesn’t go shopping either; she’s too busy controlling her husband’s career. Daughter of Kate Browning and Julien Mistral, Nadine Mistral goes to a showing at Yves Saint Laurent where she jots down the numbers of all the clothes she wants to buy. However, the scene is written in anger, and in the end, she leaves without buying a single thing.

Krantz’s text is peppered with adjectives, which understandably comes across as subpar writing to a publishing world where “show-don’t-tell” reigns supreme. But what this prolific use of adjectives does is to draw the reader in and place them in the scene. It is direct, cuts to the quick of what is important, and paints a vivid picture using only a couple of brush strokes instead of a whole paragraph. This becomes particularly important in a novel such as Mistral’s Daughter where the artistic talent of Julien Mistral is at the center of the plot. To be able to convey someone’s visceral reaction when they see a painting by Mistral only adjectives will do.

What is completely overlooked when it comes to Mistral’s Daughter is that it is a book steeped in Jewish spirituality. The story builds towards its climax by having Fauve research the persecution of the Jews of France during World War II as it played out in Provence, and as part of her quest visit a centuries-old synagogue and learn about Mistral’s behaviour towards his old Jewish friends. The climax of the novel takes place after the death of Mistral with the unveiling of his final paintings, which turn out to be a series based on the Jewish holidays. And the coup-de-grace: as Fauve exits her father’s studio after seeing the paintings, there is a small piece of paper nailed to his easel, and she bends over to take a closer look. By having Fauve read the note out loud, part of the last sentence of the novel’s climax is the Shema.

What is also overlooked, is that behind the glitz, glamour, and the idolizing of Mistral as the alpha male that affects the lives of three generations of women is an indictment of the veneration of the male genius. Mistral is a genuinely unpleasant person who puts his work before everyone, including his family and friends running for their lives. Where everyone else would be held accountable for their actions, Mistral gets a free pass because he is a Genius.

The reception of Judith Krantz’s work as an author is a typical example of how fiction centered on women is villified by literary critics and society in general. Krantz was a good writer, she knew her craft, she created compelling stories propelled by the actions of well-rounded characters, and Mistral’s Daughter is one of the best books I have read. Had she been a man writing about Julien Mistral and the women he seduced, rather than a woman writing about Maggie Lunel and her descendants, she would have been declared a genius. Because as Krantz herself makes clear for those who are open-minded enough to see, the man who is declared a genius can get away with anything.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.


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