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.

Peter Wilson’s HEART OF EUROPE, or The Holy Roman Empire, the Central-European Colossus, Explained

Say “the Holy Roman Empire” and you are likely to get one of four responses.

The person you are speaking to thinks you are talking about the Roman Catholic Church.

The person thinks you mean the Roman Empire.

You get the knee-jerk reply, “It wasn’t holy, Roman, nor an empire,” the person most likely unaware that they are quoting French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire.

You get a blank stare.

The Holy Roman Empire is arguably the best kept out-in-the-open secret of pre-modern European history. Located at the center of the European continent, it was a dominating force in European politics, religion, and warfare for nearly one thousand years.

It was in the Holy Roman Empire that the Roman Catholic Church faced its first major secular opposition through the Investiture Controversy. It was in the Holy Roman Empire that Martin Luther published his 95 Theses. It was in the Holy Roman Empire that Protestantism as a third branch of Christianity developed. It was because of decisions made in the Holy Roman Empire that Spain became an Empire in and of itself. The Holy Roman Empire is where the Thirty Years War, the most destructive military conflict on the European continent, second only to World War II, was fought. The Thirty Years War ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, negotiated and signed in the Holy Roman Empire, and which continues to influence international politics to this day. The Holy Roman Empire is the First Reich to Adolf Hitler’s Third.

And still so few have heard of it.

One reason for the obscurity of the Holy Roman Empire could be that it is notoriously difficult to define. Starting with when the Empire existed, there is consensus that it ended in 1806 when it was dissolved to prevent Napoleon Bonaparte from getting his hands on the Imperial title. But when did it begin? Some scholars say with Charlemagne (9th century), some with Otto I (10th century). When did the Empire get its name? No one really knows. What is the Empire’s name? Well, that depends.

Another reason for the Empire’s obscurity could be that the vocabulary we use today to explain geopolitical territories lacks the words to describe what the Empire was. In one way, Voltaire was right; the Holy Roman Empire was not holy, not Roman, and not an Empire. Granted, there was an Emperor who ruled over it, which by definition makes it an Empire. Furthermore, this Emperor claimed to be the successor of the Emperors of the actual Roman Empire. But when the Holy Roman Empire came into existence, Rome had been gone from the European continent for more than three hundred years.

Moreover, the territory the Holy Roman Emperor ruled consisted of a plethora of political and judicial entities–secular and clerical, alike–who all had a different relationship to the Emperor as a person and as a sovereign. To complicate matters further, the Emperor didn’t inherit his position; he was elected by an Electoral College. Whom these Electors elected depended as much on politics and alliances as it did on pedigree. The extent of the lands that the Emperor ruled depended on the person, meaning that depending on the martial prowess of the medieval Emperors or the family ties of the early-modern Emperors, the Holy Roman Empire stretched and contracted based on who was elected Emperor.

To avoid having to get into the intricacies of the Holy Roman Empire at any given time when discussing medieval and early-modern European history, “Germany” has become sort of a short-hand, which in one way is correct because the Empire did cover much of what is Germany today, and over time, it became formally known as the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. But it is also incorrect because the Holy Roman Empire included parts of what is today Austria, France, BeNeLux, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Italy.

Swedish historian Harald Gustafsson perhaps says it best when he describes the Holy Roman Empire as “a complicated entity that floated around the map of Central Europe for a thousand years.” (my transl.)

In an attempt to make sense of this complicated thing that floated around on a map and claimed to be something it was not, historian Peter H. Wilson wrote his book Heart of Europe (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020). Similar to the subject it tackles, the book is a colossus, clocking in on 1,008 pages (one page for each year the Empire existed?).

Instead of tracing the Empire’s history chronologically, Wilson comes at it thematically. Each chapter deals with one aspect of the Empire’s complicated existence. Still, the internal structure of each chapter is chronological so that once you get to the end of the book, you also get to the end of the Empire.

The thematic structure works well because it enables the reader to pick and choose what to read and delve deeper into. It also works well because where most histories of the Empire focus on its early-modern history, this approach gives ample room to discuss the Empire’s medieval history, without which the developments of the early-modern period would be difficult to understand (e.g., the explosiveness of the Reformation can only be fully understood if you are aware of the severity and the repercussions of the Investiture Controversy).

The problem with the thematic structure is that it becomes difficult to locate where specific turning points in the history of the Empire are explained. Same thing with terms of art, which in the case of the Empire’s government bureaucracy are numerous and often in German. The book contains a glossary and an index, but the glossary is quite short and the index quite long, which results in neither of them being particularly helpful. There is a chronology, but because the Empire existed for as long as it did, the chronology is 55 pages long and still only skims the surface.

The book contains several maps that chart the development of the Empire from its beginnings to its end, and present some of the many Leagues that formed as a result of shifting political, religious, and dynastic alliances over the centuries. The maps are detailed and meticulous, and provide a welcome visual aspect to the complicated internal structure of the Empire. Also included are the family trees of the most significant family groups and dynasties that dominated the position of Emperor in the Middle Ages and the Early-Modern Period.

Peter H. Wilson’s Heart of Europe is a much-needed deep dive into the complicated history of the Holy Roman Empire, the knowledge of which is crucial to the understanding of European history, from the Middle Ages until today.

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

To See the Antisemitism of Medieval Bestiaries, Look for the Owl

On March 24, 2020, I published my first piece for Aeon Magazine. I am genuinely happy about how this piece turned out. It might be my best piece of writing so far, if I may so myself. A big thank you to Pamela Weintraub, the editor who I worked with for helping me unlock it.

Enjoy!

To See the Antisemitism of Medieval Bestiaries, Look for the Owl.

animal animal photography avian beak

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The owl watches you from the raised seat on the medieval misericord in Norwich Cathedral in the east of England. Surrounding the owl are birds with feathers like the scales of a pangolin. The birds are focused on the owl. The owl pays them no mind.

The motif of this scene would have been familiar to the woodcarver who made it and to the abbey monks who leaned against it during the long hours of Mass. But the associations the people of the Middle Ages made when they saw the scene on the misericord seat were different from how we would interpret it today.

Please click here to read the rest of the article.

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

10 Things You Need to Know about the Sarajevo Haggadah

Passover is just around the corner, so on March 26, 2018, I published the following post on Book Riot.

10 Things You Need to Know about the Sarajevo Haggadah

Sarajevo Haggadah_Wikipedia

Page from the Sarajevo Haggadah. Notice the wine stains and handwritten doodles, which indicate that this haggadah has been in extensive use throughout the years. (Source: Wikipedia)

Every year on Passover Jewish families all over the world gather ’round to celebrate and commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. At the center of this annual celebration is taking turns reading from a book called a haggadah. The word haggadah comes from the Hebrew root HGD, which means “to tell,” which is exactly the purpose of the Passover celebration–to tell the story of the Jews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt, also known as the Exodus.

Because haggadot are not considered holy texts, but rather instruction materials, over time they have developed into beautiful artifacts of book art. And nowhere were such beautiful haggadots made as in the Spanish city of Barcelona during the Middle Ages. And of these Barcelona haggadots, few can compare to the wonder and splendor of a book today known as the Sarajevo Haggadah.

Here are ten things you need to know about the Sarajevo Haggadah.

If you wish to read the post in its entirety, please click here.

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

100 Must-Read Books about the Middle Ages

On January 4, 2018, I published the following post on Book Riot.

100 Must-Read Books about the Middle Ages

The ideas we tend to have about the Middle Ages are mostly based on how the time period has been interpreted through fantasy fiction and games, and the romanticizing of the era by intellectuals, scholars, politicians, and artists in the nineteenth century.

These interpretations have given rise to of a view of the Middle Ages as an entirely Christian society in western Europe, populated only by white people, and with few influences coming from outside.

This view is inaccurate.

If you want to read the post in its entirety, please click here.

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