The Bright Ages:
A New History of Medieval Europe
by matthew gabriele and david m. perry
harper, 336 pages, $23.99
Not very long ago, an eminent British editor tweeted an article from his own publication showing (he said) that “in the Middle Ages, some 100,000 women over Europe were burned, hanged, drowned, or put to death in other ingenious ways on suspicion of being witches.” “Three centuries of madness,” he called it.
Which three centuries? The article in question tells us: 1450 to 1750. And the screenshot accompanying the tweet came with the year 1682, when three penniless women were hanged in Bideford, England. The Middle Ages, it seems, can be held, even by respected and intelligent authors, to have been in full flow around 250 years after the latest commonly accepted end date—still going when Bach died and Goya was born, when Louis XIV moved into Versailles and when Henry Fielding published Tom Jones. No wonder it is so easy to damn the medieval period, when it can be stretched, at least in the modern imagination, for as many additional centuries as our contempt and condemnation require.
The tweet was later amended, but it is emblematic. Commentators will leapfrog over centuries of historical phenomena analogous to contemporary crimes or outrages in order to find medieval precursors instead. The opening statement of the chief prosecutor in the trial of Slobodan Milošević spoke of “almost medieval savagery.” Responding to reports last year that the then–prime minister of Pakistan had linked rape to how women dress, a professor of economics accused Imran Khan of having a “medieval mindset.” A prominent English journalist declared the fact that leaders at the most recent G7 summit went unmasked, while staff were covered, to be (you guessed it) “medieval.” One way or another, it is the Middle Ages—and not, say, the first half of the twentieth century—that have become shorthand for “the opposite of what we want our modern world to be.”
This last phrase comes from The Bright Ages, a new history of medieval Europe co-authored by two academics based at American universities. Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry have observed the expectations that their students bring to medieval history classes. They arrive looking for “darkness and grit.” The movies that have formed these young minds imply that nothing is more authentically medieval than sexism, rape, and torture. Gabriele and Perry’s book hides none of the cruel excesses of the Middle Ages, which, like all eras of humankind, bear dark and awful stains. But, in a kind of magic carpet ride around the places, events, and personalities of medieval Europe, they attempt to show the myriad ways in which our civilization was also advancing into the light.
Ironically enough, The Bright Ages—which repeatedly parades the authors’ determination not to allow the Middle Ages to be captured by white supremacists—has itself been sucked into a social media–powered row about race, with one medievalist denouncing the authors for “[relying] on their whiteness for authority,” and complaining that “Europe, Christianity, and whiteness remain central themes.” But this shouldn’t blind us to a wider trend The Bright Ages represents: a desire among both popular and scholarly writers to get the reading public to rethink common assumptions about the Middle Ages, and to avoid an attitude of lazy dismissal.
This book comes on the heels of The Light Ages, published last year by the English historian Seb Falk. Despite their similar titles, the books take very different approaches. Chapter by chapter, Gabriele and Perry usher into view, from behind the curtain of the familiar grand narratives and from multiple locations, an eclectic cast of characters—many of them women—who exemplify, in a multitude of ways, a dazzling brightness where history has instructed us to see only gloom.
Falk, by contrast, devotes his book entirely to medieval science, and to the life and times of a single fourteenth-century English monk named John Westwyk, author of a treatise called Equatorie of the Planetis, for whom studying the book of nature alongside the book of Scripture was “an integral part of praising God.” All our GPSs, all our online-delivery slots, Falk reminds us, stem from the “clockwork revolution” that occurred around 1300, with the dawning of “reliable machines that could keep universally agreed time in equal hours.”
If the Middle Ages were more scientifically sophisticated than the caricature allows, they were also more cosmopolitan. As Falk observes, Latin, “the first pan-European language of scholarship,” allowed masters to work freely “from Paris to Padua, Cambridge to Cologne.” New numerals from sixth-century India gradually replaced their Latin predecessors, thanks to both Muslim and Christian popularizers. A twelfth-century Worcestershire abbot studied the moon through the work of Pedro Alfonso, a converted Jew from Aragon—himself indebted to Islamic scholarship, which he had picked up when his hometown was under Arab control. Monks borrowed the latest astronomical research from Iran, or arrived from Tunisia laden with medical textbooks, or traveled to Toledo to translate Arabic works. The sheer cosmopolitanism of the Middle Ages is perhaps the largest patch of common ground between The Light Ages and The Bright Ages.
Falk’s book is an encouragement to epistemic humility, prompting us to correct both what we think we know about the Middle Ages and what we think we know about ourselves as people of the early twenty-first century. It conjures hope that future generations will not belittle us for failing to answer questions we couldn’t possibly have posed.
In Dominion, his panoramic 2019 account of the development of the Western mind, Tom Holland makes a compelling case that the Christian Middle Ages created the very assumptions that present-day secularists take for granted. “Where does this idea come from, the idea that inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person exist?” Holland asked in an interview around the time Dominion was published. “It doesn’t come from the Greeks. It doesn’t come from the Romans. Enlightenment philosophers didn’t invent it. If you think that human rights just magically exist in the air, then that is a massive faith position. And it still prompts the question, where did this idea that human rights just hover in the air come from? And the answer is that, specifically, the notion of human rights derived from the canon lawyers of the twelfth century.”
Elsewhere in this eclectic, burgeoning field of medieval revisionism can be found Rodney Stark, professor of sociology at Baylor University and author of a string of books taking apart the black legends about the Middle Ages and the Catholic Church; and Johannes Fried, retired professor of medieval history at the University of Frankfurt. In the stirring epilogue to his 2015 defense of the period, Fried lauds the restless, passionate curiosity of the medieval mind and exposes its Enlightenment and contemporary defamers, gathered on the shoulders of giants of whom, thanks to their prejudices, they know nothing.
The new turn in medieval studies can perhaps be traced to Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars, which marks its thirtieth anniversary this year. In his introduction to the new edition, Duffy explains the realization that inspired his landmark study. He came to see that the products and practices of late medieval Christianity were not “a meaningless mount of mumbo-jumbo, culpably remote from the personality and teaching of Jesus, strong on magic, weak on personal responsibility,” but instead “the ritual building-blocks of a coherent worldview” that privileged the spiritual health of the community over the individual’s search for authenticity.
The most remarkable thesis of all, though, may come from Joseph Henrich, Chair of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard. In The Weirdest People in the World (2020), Henrich posits that the ultimate explanation for the West’s preeminence—in education, industrialization, wealth, and democratization—can be found in the medieval Church’s restrictions on cousin marriage. According to Henrich, whose argument has been favorably covered in the Washington Post and Science, such restrictions seeded greater individualism, independence, and trust in strangers.
Watching this swelling wave, wondering where it might go next or whether it has peaked, is fascinating. And so too is tracing its deeper antecedents, those scholars who in times past fought for a more nuanced, appreciative understanding of the Middle Ages. Among the intellectual godparents of Duffy, Holland, and the rest can be found Charles Homer Haskins, whose 1927 classic, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century, expressed, by means of its title alone, a desire to make readers think again about where the dividing lines of history could be softened or redrawn; and Kenneth Clark, who in the late 1960s, on the page and the television screen, explained how western Europe was, by the year 1000, already prepared for its first great age of civilization, and how the twelfth century in particular saw in “every branch of life—action, philosophy, organisation, technology— . . . an extraordinary outpouring of energy, an intensification of existence.”
One thinks also of the French historian Régine Pernoud, who in 1977 wrote Pour en finir avec le Moyen Age (available in English as Those Terrible Middle Ages!); and of Christopher Dawson (1889–1970), a man who thought in epochs and civilizations. Dawson saw that the early Middle Ages in Western Europe “created not this or that manifestation of culture, but the very culture itself—the root and ground of all the subsequent cultural achievements.” One might even invoke Oscar Wilde, whose De Profundis laments that “Christ’s own renaissance”—which produced “the Cathedral at Chartres, the Arthurian cycle of legends, the life of St. Francis of Assisi, the art of Giotto, and Dante’s Divine Comedy—was
not allowed to develop on its own lines, but was interrupted and spoiled by the dreary classical Renaissance that gave us Petrarch, and Raphael’s frescoes, and Palladian architecture, and formal French tragedy, and St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Pope’s poetry, and everything that is made from without and by dead rules, and does not spring from within through some spirit informing it. But wherever there is a romantic movement in art there somehow, and under some form, is Christ, or the soul of Christ. He is in Romeo and Juliet, in the Winter’s Tale, in Provençal poetry, in the Ancient Mariner, in La Belle Dame sans Merci, and in Chatterton’s Ballad of Charity.
Gabriele and Perry’s twenty-first-century evocation of the bright ages has a certain kinship with Wilde’s romantic nineteenth-century panorama, which, of course, had many antecedents of its own. The banner of the medieval defenders continues therefore to unfurl, in familiar and unfamiliar ways.
In the end, one must wonder whether this collective but uncoordinated effort to shift common opinion of the Middle Ages will ever bear fruit; whether the commentariat will ever be weaned from regarding everything that is “reprehensible, repellent, and brutal” in our times as a medieval relapse, rather than (in Johannes Fried’s words) “the outbreak of a newly minted kind of immaturity that has everything to do with current social failings.” It is, then, worth remembering the old truism: that for a complex and unpopular position to stand a chance of penetrating public consciousness, its advocates will have to grow truly sick of making their point, over and over and over.
John Duggan writes from Surrey, England.