Interview with Jens Mühling for Foreword Reviews

In May of this year, I sat down with German author and journalist Jens Mühling to talk about his latest book Troubled Water. A Journey around the Black Sea for Foreword Reviews.

When I signed up to review the book in January this year I did it out of my own personal interest. The Black Sea is a body of water that is generally overlooked in today’s West-centric geopolitical debates, but for thousands of years, the Black Sea has been a nexus for human communication. I encounter the Black Sea no matter what type of history I study. The Ancient Greeks colonized the shores of this sea. Constantinople was founded by the Romans as a lock on the sea. The Goths migrated from the shores of this sea and changed the face of the European peninsulas during late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. The Ottoman Empire, Poland-Lithuania, and Russia went up against each other for supremacy over this sea, a fight that went on for centuries.

Map of the Black Sea. Source: Jens Mühling, Troubled Water/Amazon.com.

In May, when I sat down to talk to Jens, the world was in a different place than back in January. The Black Sea was at the center of the world’s attention because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine’s modern southern border stretches along the north shore of the Black Sea, cut short by Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.

Click here to read my interview with Jens. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Click here to read my review of Troubled Water, which was given a starred review in Foreword Review’s May/June issue of 2022.

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

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Mending the Tapestry. A Review of Cat Jarman’s RIVER KINGS.

This review is based on the paperback edition.

In the parish church of Svinnegarn in the Swedish region of Uppland there is a Viking Age runestone fixed inside a wall. The runestone was placed there when the church was rebuilt in the eighteenth century, serving as something similar to a mural. Decorated with a large Greek cross at its center, it reads:

Þjalfi and Holmlaug had all of these stones raised in memory of Banki/Baggi, their son, who alone owned a ship and steered to the east in Ingvarr’s retinue. May God help Banki’s/Baggi’s spirit. Áskell carved.

Known as U 778 in the registry of the Swedish National Heritage Board and dated to c. 1010–1050, this runestone is one of more than twenty that mention a Viking raid to the east, possibly as far as the Caspian Sea, led by a man named Ingvarr and which ended in disaster. When news of the expedition’s violent end reached the families at home, they raised runestones to commemorate their dead family members.

Meanwhile further south, another family raised a runestone to commemorate a family member who never returned. Standing at the edge of a field on the Gillberga farm in the Swedish region of Östergötland, the runestone known as Ög 104 is also dated to c. 1010–1050. Decorated with a snake wrapped by its own tail, it tells the following story:

Rauðr raised this stone in memory of Tóki, his brother, a very good valiant man, who was killed in England.

U 778 and Ög 104 are only two examples of the thousands of runestones that were raised and remain standing across the Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian countrysides. These stones are invaluable because they are the only written sources where the Scandinavians of the Viking Age speak for themselves. The practice of raising runestones lasted for a short period of time, but the fact that they are found not only in Scandinavia, but also in places where the Scandinavians traveled and settled, such as England, the Isle of Man, and Ukraine, demonstrates that it was an important custom.

U 778 and Ög 104 are also examples of how far the Scandinavians of the Viking Age traveled, and that they traveled both east and west. Traditionally, the idea has been that people from Norway and Denmark traveled west and people from Sweden traveled east. As a scholar, you studied either one direction (west) or the other (east); most often the west because the other direction was the Soviet Union. But as time progresses after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the modern geopolitical split that cut the Viking world in two is healing, contacts between Viking Age scholars on both sides of what used to be the Iron Curtain continue to be established and nurtured, and the Viking world is re-emerging as even larger and more complex than we could ever have imagined.

In her excellent book River Kings, archaeologist Cat Jarman takes this re-assembly of the Viking world to its extreme when she launches an investigation into how a carnelian bead from India ended up in the grave of a Viking Age Scandinavian warrior in Repton, England. Written like a true crime story, Jarman draws on her expertise and immense knowledge to tell a story that is a real page turner. To find the answer to her question about the carnelian bead, she takes us on a journey where she travels both in person and through history. She takes us to the early medieval emporia of Kaupang in Norway, to the mass grave on the Estonian island of Saaremaa, to the cities of Kievan Rus, to archaeological excavations in Ukraine, to Baghdad, Constantinople, and finally, to India and the last existing workshop that makes carnelian beads the way they would have been made over a thousand years ago.

River Kings successfully adds new weft where the tapestry of the Viking world was torn asunder. The book is beautifully written, the story is masterly crafted, the research solid and deep. The only complaint I have is Jarman’s use of the term “Anglo-Saxon” instead of “early Middle Ages” in English history. The origins of the term “Anglo-Saxon” have been exposed as white supremacist and racist with no connection to the time period it purports to represent. Jarman acknowledges that the term is modern, has no connection to history, and that it has been “misused” by racists and extremists. By not mentioning the origins of the term, she is able to continue using it because it “remains a widely understood frame of reference for the communities and kingdoms of England between the fifth and eleventh centuries.” (p. 23) It is an interesting conservative choice in an otherwise groundbreaking book. But then again, Jarman also slips in the term “Dark Ages,” which too is outdated.

River Kings by Cat Jarman is a groundbreaking book. Alongside Neil Price’s Children of Ash and Elm, River Kings is charting new territory in Viking studies and as such is essential reading for anyone serious about the Viking Age.

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

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How to Drain the Middle Ages of All Its Color, or a Review of The Lawless Land by Boyd and Beth Morrison

Hroznata was a powerful man in medieval Bohemia who also was very pious. On two occasions, he made a vow to go on a crusade but he broke them both. As penance, he founded a monastery. Used to having his way, he tried to interfere with the daily running of it, but the only thing he managed to do was to piss off the monks so that when he was captured and held for ransom, they stalled the payment and he died in prison.

A pawn in the political game played by her father, Princess Ingeborg of Norway married Duke Erik of Sweden when she was 11 years old and he was 30. At age 15, she gave birth to a son, Magnus, and a year later to a daughter, Eufemia. Duke Erik was a man of ambitions, who together with his brother Valdemar rebelled against their older brother Birger, the king of Sweden. A peace offering was made in the late fall of 1317 when King Birger invited Erik and Valdemar to a feast at Nyköping Castle. In the middle of the party, Erik and Valdemar were thrown into prison where they died–possibly of starvation–in early 1318. Now a seventeen-year old widow with two children alone in a hostile environment, Ingeborg joined her late husband’s allies and together they deposed King Birger and sent him into exile. They executed Birger’s son and heir to the throne, and made Ingeborg and Duke Erik’s son, Magnus, king instead. At the age of 19, Duchess Ingeborg was the legal guardian of her three-year old son and in his name, she ruled the largest kingdom in medieval Europe, reaching from Finland in the east to Greenland in the west.

The lives of Hroznata and Ingeborg are only two examples of why the Middle Ages are so fascinating. Both of these stories are true, and both of them would be good plots for historical fiction if they were not. Writing historical fiction set in the Middle Ages is a big task. As an author, your imagination needs to be vivid enough to trump reality, and you also need to have the capacity to inhabit a cultural and psychological universe different from your own.

Two people who decided to tackle the Middle Ages through historical fiction are the siblings Boyd and Beth Morrison who have co-written the novel The Lawless Land (Head of Zeus 2022). Boyd is a New York Times bestselling author of thrillers and Beth is the Senior Curator of Manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

The Lawless Land is the story of Gerald Fox, a knight without a lord who is on a quest to restore his family name and ancestral estate. In his pursuit, he meets Isabel, a young maiden on the run from her own wedding and who harbors more than one secret.

The novel is set in 1351, at the very end of the first wave of the Bubonic plague across Europe, also known as the Black Death (1347–1351). The setting is England and France on both sides of the English Channel.

Even though the novel is set in the late Middle Ages, the only thing that makes it medieval is because it says so. Gerald Fox is a man who has lost faith in his faith after having seen one too many battles. By making Fox into a battle-weary atheist, the authors have given themselves a get-out-of-jail-free card because by removing religion from the mix, they didn’t have to wrap their heads around the one thing that made medieval Europe tick: Christianity.

Christianity, or Latin Christendom to be precise, was the umbrella under which everything took place in the Middle Ages. The agricultural year was organized around the saints’ feasts, politics and piety were so closely intertwined there is no point in trying to separate them, agnostics and atheists did not exist, relics were big business, and royalty and nobility secured their place in heaven by donating and founding chapels, monasteries, and churches. Latin Christendom drove inventions in science, art, literature, and fashion. Latin Christendom was the reason why there were two legal systems in medieval Europe: Canon Law, or the law of the Church, and secular law. Latin Christendom was the reason why Jews and Muslims were discriminated against and tolerated at the same time. Latin Christendom is what gave medieval culture a mystical bent.

The book’s idea of what is Europe is outdated. The map at the beginning of the book is called “Europe 1351” but shows only France, northeast Italy, and southern England, even though medieval Europe reached all the way east to Ukraine, north to the Arctic, and south to Spain and Greece. No borders are visible on this map, which robs the reader of the knowledge that half of what we think of as France at this time was English, the other half consisted of regions more or less under the French king’s sovereignty, and that Turin and Genoa were powerful city-state republics with large hinterlands. For reasons unknown, the detailed map of southeast England is called “Canterbury” even though what is shown is the county of Kent with Calais added on the other side of the English Channel.

The McGuffin of the story is an expensive manuscript that was “saved” from destruction during the sack of Constantinople in 1204; the story does not divulge that Constantinople was sacked as part of the Fourth Crusade, when Latin Christians turned on Greek Christians and wreaked such havoc on the city that it did not recover until the Ottoman Turks conquered it in 1453 and breathed new life into it. In other words, the priceless manuscript was saved from being destroyed by the very people who saved it. Moreover, this manuscript is an heirloom of Isabel’s family because they didn’t want to give it up to a monastery, a logic that runs counter to how a medieval person would have thought. If there was an opportunity to donate a priceless manuscript to a monastery, they would have done so. Such donations were used as evidence of largess on behalf of the nobility and also as payment for prayers in the afterlife, an integral aspect of medieval culture and psychology.

The medieval world that comes across in The Lawless Land is without the color, absurdity, religiosity, mysticism, and bawdy sense of humor that permeated the medieval world. The characters are stiff, the plot is predictable, the ideas of what is and was Europe are outdated, the ideas of what it meant to donate objects to a monastery and indeed join a monastery display Protestant prejudices against holy objects and religious institutions of what is today Catholicism. What matters in historical fiction is not only that the authors get the facts straight; they also need to capture the essence of the time period.

On its dust jacket, The Lawless Land is given an endorsement by Lee Child, which makes sense. The Lawless Land is written like a thriller, and it reads like one. Change the year from 1351 to 2022 and it wouldn’t make much of a difference. So, if you are looking for Jack Reacher in the fourteenth century, this is the book for you. If you are looking for historical fiction set in the medieval world, I suggest you move along.

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

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The Invention of the Clash of Civilizations. A review of Nancy Bisaha’s CREATING EAST AND WEST

On May 29, 1453, the city of Constantinople fell to the army of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II (r. 1444–1446, 1451–1481), also known as Mehmed the Conqueror. Even though the relationship between Latin Christianity and Greek Christianity (today known as Roman Catholicism and the Greek Orthodox Church, respectively) had been complicated since their messy break up in the middle of the 11th century, the loss of Constantinople to the Muslim Turks came as a shock to the rest of Europe. Secure in their conviction that the fortified capital of the Byzantine Empire could withstand a long-term siege, allies had been slow to muster forces and send aid. And now, it was too late. The last bastion of the Roman Empire was no more.

In traditional history writing, the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 CE marks the end of Antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages. Behind this narrative lies the idea that Rome was the pinnacle of human civilization, and nothing has been the same since. After the light of Rome was extinguished, darkness fell on the world until light was kindled once more with the rebirth of Roman culture in fourteenth-century Italy.

We find evidence of this view of history in the Dark Ages, an outdated name for the time period otherwise known as the Middle Ages, which, incidentally, is also a pejorative name for the time period between the end of Rome and Rome born again. And, we find this view in the name of the time period that in Italy followed the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, which literally means “rebirth.”

This simplistic narrative hides several complicated truths. For one, Rome didn’t suddenly collapse and leave the world in darkness. Nor was it the end of the entire Roman Empire. What happened was that to save the Empire from collapsing, Emperor Diocletian (r. 284–305) divided the massive realm into two halves along a north-south axis, which created a Latin-dominated western half and a Greek-dominated eastern half, ruled by an emperor in the east and a co-emperor in the west. As it turned out, the eastern half dominated over the western half, most notably after Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306–337) founded a new imperial capital where the Mediterranean meets the Black Sea. He named this city after himself–Constantinople.

As the eastern half of the Empire flourished, the western half struggled to stay together. In 476 CE, Emperor Romulus Augustus was deposed by Ostrogothic king Odoacer and the Roman Empire in the west is considered to have come to an end. The debate on why the Roman Empire disintegrated in the west is a lively one, but suffice it to say, that when the Roman Empire went away in the west, it continued to exist in the east. We call that Rome the Byzantine Empire. Its capital remained Constantinople.

Whereas it can be debated whether or not the Renaissance is a time period of its own or if it is a cultural, political, and artistic movement among the elites of a fractured Italian peninsula that spread its influences over Europe for the next three centuries, the fact remains that during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Italy, new ideas flourished with inspiration from the Ancient world. These ideas built on their medieval predecessors, but as Nancy Bisaha argues in her excellent book Creating East and West. Renaissance Humanists and the Ottoman Turks, they were distinguished enough to warrant the label “new.” And, as Bisaha goes on to prove, one of the main catalysts for these new ideas was the Ottoman Turks taking Constantinople for themselves.

Whereas the relationship between Latin Christendom and the Muslim world at times was contentious during the Middle Ages, it is in the work of the Italian Renaissance humanists that Bisaha traces the invention of a clash of civilizations. People of the medieval world harbored prejudices and cultivated stereotypes about those who were not Christians, but the chauvinism, superiority, and vitriol that can be found in the writings of the Italian Renaissance humanists is of a different kind. The dichotomy between civilizations is more clearly drawn; the Othering of initially the Turks, but later all Muslims, is more marked; and the identity of Europe as something distinct and superior to the rest of the (Muslim) world is in the process of being formed.

By delving deep into a very large corpus of primary sources from Renaissance Italy, Bisaha convincingly demonstrates that these attitudes were not expressed by a chosen few of the Italian Renaissance humanists, but that they were widespread, and that the intellectuals who participated in the debate, which the fall of Constantinople sparked, were many.

Suffice it to say, Creating East and West is an excellent book. The research is extensive and meticulous. The writing craft is exemplary. The historical analysis is on the highest level.

If I were to criticize this book for anything it would be how it positions itself in the existing research at the time of its publication in 2004. As a scholar who has worked in different European countries and in the United States, I am well aware of how difficult it is to obtain books from abroad. I am also well aware that much has changed as to what was available in 2004 compared to today when libraries and book publishing is increasingly digitized.

All that being said, I still need to point out that the majority of the books and articles referenced by Bisaha are Anglo-American publications. A handful are European, even fewer are Italian. Of the Italian publications, two are from 1999 and 2002, respectively. The rest are older, some significantly so.

Moreover, in the book’s otherwise impeccable introduction chapter, the historians whose works that Bisaha discusses as the most relevant research that the book is positioning itself against are all either British or American (and they are all men). Publishing this type of book is an important step in the recruiting process towards tenure at an institution of higher education in the United States. Therefore, positioning yourself within the field where you intend to have your career is crucial.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that this is a book on Italian and European history that does not position itself against the work of Italian and European historians. This would be the same as if an Italian historian would write about the American Revolution and then only position their work against that of other Italians.

This is not to criticize Bisaha or her credentials as a historian; it is merely an observation about a systemic issue within academia.

However, this observation does beg the somewhat uncomfortable question: how relevant are Bisaha’s findings in the larger context of European history and historical research? The Italian Renaissance is not my field of expertise, and because of that I am unable to determine whether something of importance did take place in Italian humanist thought following the fall of Constantinople, or whether the writings of the humanists come across as important because they look important in the primary sources.

Or, perhaps the geriatric publications in Bisaha’s references are evidence of the fact that what Bisaha highlights in her book is under-researched among Italian historians, and her findings are something that shakes life into a research field that has stagnated?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, because the book doesn’t tell me.

These reservations aside, Bisaha’s results do demonstrate that a shift did take place among Italian Renaissance humanists after 1453, and these new thoughts that developed are of significance because of Italy’s cultural influence over the rest of late-medieval and early-modern Europe. They are also of significance because we are still living with them today. The roots of Islamophobia and the Othering of people in what used to be the eastern half of the Roman Empire can be found here, in the impressive amounts of centuries-old texts that Bisaha has dedicated herself to.

If you are curious about the roots of the ideas of the clash of civilizations, Western exceptionalism and chauvinism, Creating East and West is the book for you.

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

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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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