Last year I read a great book of popular history, The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe by Matthew Gabriele, David M. Perry (link to my employer’s site). I sort-of forgot, sort-of kept thinking “tomorrow, tomorrow” about posting any sort of response here. Lately, there has been a bit of twitter drama about the casting for a tv adaptation of Tolkien’s work, and it’s been largely supported by dopes aggressively misreading the idea that Tolkein was writing some sort of English myth cycle. While that narrow observation is kind-of true, a couple of larger facts are more important: it’s not actually an English myth cycle, it’s fiction; and even if it were an English myth cycle (still questionable since the idea of Englishness is historically … slippery), those myths would absolutely incorporate the fact that there have always been people with varying skin tones and cultural identities in that geography.
As it is with Tolkien’s work, so it is with European history. The Bright Ages‘s primary notion, one that it points out over and over, is that Europe has never been exclusively white (whatever that means), certainly not exclusively Christian, and that attempting to understand European history without the context of the rest of what, when I was a child, was called the Old World is a mug’s game.
It’s been too long since I’ve read it to write a full review, but I submitted a short review to the publisher.
A marvelous, wide ranging reintroduction to the thousand years all too often characterized as dark. Built on the premise that continuity is as much a fact of human life as beginnings and endings, the authors do a great job of demonstrating that history is particular as well as sweeping, and that common life stories are as important as those of kings. The Bright Ages shines a light on the vast range of humanity who lived in medieval Europe, and lived in the wider world around Europe.
And another short bit I sent to my mailing list people.
The central idea is that the medieval thousand years in Europe aren’t as dark as commonly thought. The difference between the “fall of Rome” and “the Renaissance” isn’t a couple of abrupt changes, and there is a lot of continuity on a lifetime to lifetime basis. Also woven into this story is that the idea of Europe as a stand-alone entity ignores a lot of what actually happened, and who was actually there.
So, The Bright Ages. Easy to read, maybe challenging to digest.
edit (April 28, 2022): there has been some recent controversy about The Bright Ages, and I think it is important to acknowledge where the criticism makes important points about the failures of the authors. See the full review by M. Rambaran-Olm on Medium. In brief, the authors did a poor job acknowledging how their sources were integrated into their text, and failed to really engage directly with other contemporary scholarship. In a book that was, in large part, about pointing out how the thousand years were not a “dark age” and that Europe is not the center of the world, the white authors still managed to center their own white-inflected worldview. There is a related issue in that this review, published on Medium, was originally commissioned for the Los Angeles Review of Books, but not published there. I will leave a tweet here for the interested reader to dig into that controversy.