The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe by Matthew Gabriele & David M. Perry

The Bright Ages Book Cover

Information

GoodreadsThe Bright Ages
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Library
Published: December 2021

Official Summary

A lively and magisterial popular history that refutes common misperceptions of the European Middle Ages, showing the beauty and communion that flourished alongside the dark brutality—a brilliant reflection of humanity itself.

The word “medieval” conjures images of the “Dark Ages”—centuries of ignorance, superstition, stasis, savagery, and poor hygiene. But the myth of darkness obscures the truth; this was a remarkable period in human history. The Bright Ages recasts the European Middle Ages for what it was, capturing this 1,000-year era in all its complexity and fundamental humanity, bringing to light both its beauty and its horrors. 

The Bright Ages takes us through ten centuries and crisscrosses Europe and the Mediterranean, Asia and Africa, revisiting familiar people and events with new light cast upon them. We look with fresh eyes on the Fall of Rome, Charlemagne, the Vikings, the Crusades, and the Black Death, but also to the multi-religious experience of Iberia, the rise of Byzantium, and the genius of Hildegard and the power of queens. We begin under a blanket of golden stars constructed by an empress with Germanic, Roman, Spanish, Byzantine, and Christian bloodlines and end nearly 1,000 years later with the poet Dante—inspired by that same twinkling celestial canopy—writing an epic saga of heaven and hell that endures as a masterpiece of literature today.  

The Bright Ages reminds us just how permeable our manmade borders have always been and of what possible worlds the past has always made available to us. The Middle Ages may have been a world “lit only by fire” but it was one whose torches illuminated the magnificent rose windows of cathedrals, even as they stoked the pyres of accused heretics.  

Star Divider

Review

The Bright Ages by Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry is a history of medieval Europe for the generalist reader that seeks to combat lingering misconceptions about the time period. Far from being a time without learning or knowledge, the book argues, the medieval period continued to rely on knowledge from the past while also inspiring remarkable accomplishments in theology, art, and more. Furthermore, medieval Europe was never isolated, nor was it the symbol of white purity that white supremacists wish to believe. With a conversational tone, Gabriele and Perry take readers on a whirlwind tour, one that is just a glimpse of all the marvels the Middle Ages have to offer.

Because the book covers such a long period of time, its strength lies in providing an overview rather than an in-depth analysis. Chapters tend to focus on particular kingdoms or geographic regions, while showing how those areas changed over time, and how they interacted with their neighbors. An emphasis is placed on Christianity and its art (its cathedrals, philosophers, and literature) while scientific knowledge largely goes unexplored. Readers imagining that the “Bright Ages” refers to scientific advancements will be disappointed.

The Bright Ages, actually, is just a name that stems from the metaphor that tries to tie the book together. Light is constantly referred to, from the stars painted on a church ceiling to the fires that burned heretics. (In this case, “bright” or “light” is not always equivalent with “good” or “admirable.”) The connection is, admittedly, tenuous, but I guess the authors deserve some recognition for attempting to find a unifying theme in what is otherwise a somewhat scattered kind of book, with no real rhyme or reason indicated as to why the authors would choose to focus on certain figures or kingdoms.

What I found most interesting about The Bright Ages are the stories the authors told highlighting the contributions of women and people of color. Their research indicates that there are such stories to be told, and thus suggests that authors still focusing only on the contributions of white men to European society/the Middle Ages need to do some more work. I appreciated their attempts to expand readers’ understanding of what living in medieval Europe would have really been like.

The Bright Ages is a worthwhile popular history for those interested in the Middle Ages. The information may not be new to readers who know a lot about medieval times, but the book functions wonderfully as an introduction and may just inspire readers to keep learning more.

4 stars

10 thoughts on “The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe by Matthew Gabriele & David M. Perry

  1. Kim @ Traveling in Books says:

    I picked up a copy of this during Barnes and Noble’s 50% off sale. I have been looking forward to it for a while.

    If you want to read more about science and learning in the Medieval era, check out The Light Ages by Seb Falk. He talks about the university culture, inventions, science, and the communication between Christian and Muslim scholars.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I think when most people try to defend the Middle Ages, they start talking about how there were still interest in science. So I was kind of surprised that wasn’t really mentioned at all.

      Like

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