Book Review: The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe

The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe by Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry. Audiobook Narration by Jim Meskimen

The Bright Ages is ambitiously subtitled “A New History of Medieval Europe”. Realistically, it’s an overview of European history from the mid 400s to the early 1300s viewed through a new lens - a modern understanding that does away with the darkness of the “Dark Ages”.  An overview is all you can expect for a 250 page book that attempts to cover 1000 years of history. Nevertheless, it’s a useful guide to modern thinking about medieval times.

Contemporary historians have told us for several years now that “Dark Ages” is a misnomer. Gabriele and Perry, a medieval historian and a journalist/historian respectively, don’t think we’ve quite gotten the message. This book is their attempt to address that. 

The authors tell us that eras of history don’t simply start and end - you can’t pick a specific date, let alone a year, and say “medieval times started here”, or “ended here”. Despite that, they offer their own time-based framing. The Bright Ages, they say, started around the year 430 AD with the building of a chapel at Ravenna at the behest of Galla Placidia, sister of a Roman emperor and queen of the Visigoths. They ended with the writing of Dante’s Inferno in the early 1300s. 

In between those endpoints the book focuses each of its seventeen chapters on a different place and time, as a way of illuminating different topics. The continent from Spain to Constantinople, and from Britain to Rome is covered. The Crusades are explored. The interaction of Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars are discussed. The rise of the Papacy as both a religious and secular power center is described. The role of women; the rise of universities; the presence of non-white people in Europe; the rise of the Vikings; and much more are all touched on.  

The tone of the book is conversational and it's likely the authors had undergrads or others with little exposure to medieval history as their target audience. For them it would be a great starting point. For others who have read or studied the Middle Ages, it’s a well done, modernized refresher, with the understanding that, as an overview, it necessarily leaves out topics, people and events.

The reframing of this history includes some modern notions that have raised objections from others who have read the book. Included in the author’s framing is a modern understanding that refutes the rationale of Gibbon and other nineteenth century historians who wrote in the time of Empires. Such historians built a history of the West that was bound to rise up and take its rightful place as the successor to the Roman Empire, thus almost necessitating a “dark age” in between.

The authors take the further step of tying their earlier histories to their times, which include the invention of race and of white supremacy that undergirded the nineteenth century Empires they lived in. Their notion of a “Dark Ages”, the authors say, implied a time about which we know little, and allowed modern people, like those earlier historians, to project their own notions backwards into the past. The authors express their concern that these projections include misunderstandings of medieval times that support notions of white supremacy. This is all discussed in the book, and has discomfited some readers. 

It is true that the discussion is not part of the history of the Middle Ages itself, which seems to be the main objection I’ve seen. But, as the premise of the book is to frame the modern understanding of medieval times, it strikes me that the discussion is not out of place in this book.

For me, this book was an interesting, well written overview of the brightness of medieval times. I give The Bright Ages Four Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐.

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Title: The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe
Authors: Matthew Gabriele & David M. Perry. Audiobook Narration by Jim Meskimen
Publisher: Harper (Harper Collins)
Publish Date: December 7, 2021
ISBN-13: 9780062980892
Publisher’s List Price: $23.99 (Hardcover as of 01/2022)